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What Do Higher School Grades Mean for Florida Accountability System?

Yesterday, my colleague and On Special Education blogger Nirvi Shah explored moves by Florida officials to remove schools that serve students with severe disabilities from the accountability system by which the state's public schools are graded. But a related development from July 20 that should be noted is that 8 percent of schools (or 213 schools total, out of 2,586 graded schools) learned that their A-F school grades were bumped up by the state education department.

Just over half of those schools, or 116 in total, moved up from a B to an A grade, while seven schools moved out of the failing zone, from a F to a D. As a result of the individual school changes, nine districts saw their respective total grades increase, including Hillsborough (which serves the Tampa area) and Palm Beach.

That's the short-term good news. But one potential problem people could have with the change was highlighted by state Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat.

Montford told Tallahassee.com capital bureau reporter Travis Pillow, "It's good news for those schools. It's good news for those districts" that saw their grades improve, but added, "It's bad news for our accountability system."

To what extent, then, should people's faith in the Sunshine State's school accountability system be undermined, even if the news is good for some schools and districts? Remember, the state caught a lot of flak for changing the cut-scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in writing after student performance dropped even more than expected.

Florida does have an appeals process through which districts can challenge their school grades with the state department. But a department spokeswoman, Cheryl Etters, told me that, in fact, the increases to the school grades represent the correction of an error that was caught by department staff during the grade review process, not specific district appeals. (School grades aren't actually finalized until September, she said.)

"There were new parts of the calculation that we hadn't had before," she said.

The problem this time was that schools did not get enough credit for previously low-performing students who exceeded expected increases on their FCATs. Specifically, students who previously scored a 1 or 2 on their FCAT tests and then improved by at least one-third more than expected should have given their schools a boost on their school grades. This change came from a recommendation from a task force reporting to Commissioner of Education Gerard Robinson, but wasn't built into the initial school grades.

As this news release from the Palm Beach County district notes, the lowest-scoring students who demonstrate "significant growths" are weighted at an additional 30 percent, increasing the students' and their school's total points.

Etters challenged Montford's interpretation of what the changes mean for the accountability system. She said that since the error was caught and changed before final grades were released, and before the schools in question felt any consequences of those lower grades, the move doesn't reflect a problem per se in the state accountability system.

One possible interpretation of this news is that even for states with well-established school accountability systems, like Florida, changes are inevitable and no system may ever be "finalized" in the general sense of the term.

To keep up with the latest state education news, make sure you follow State EdWatch's Twitter feed @StateEdWatch.

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