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Florida Relaxes A-F School Accountability for Common-Core Transition

The Florida State Board of Education voted Tuesday to alter its school accountability system, which uses A-F grades based on test scores, graduation rates, and other factors, so that no individual school's grade can drop by more than one letter in one year, for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school year. The board agreed on the change by a 4-3 vote, after receiving a recommendation to do so by state Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett.

Florida's transition to the Common Core State Standards is the motivation. The 2013-14 school year is the first time that the standards will be implemented across the entire K-12 system in the state. (Up until now, the standards have only been used in grades K-2.) And 2014-15 is the first year that students in Florida and other states will be assessed based on the common core across all states—Florida will be using the assessments provided by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Given the broad expectation that the standards will ask more of students in terms of understanding material and content, there's concern in Florida and elsewhere about how student performance will look in the future. In 2013-14, Florida will still be using its current state assessments before transitioning to PARCC tests.

After speaking with district superintendents July 1 on a task force to examine the issue, Bennett wrote a letter to the state board recommending the two-year transition period that will purportedly make it easier for schools to adjust to the standards, terming the proposal a "transition safety net." He called the change the "primary recommendation" of the superintendents' task force.

"The department understands the superintendents' concern that multiple changes to performance expectations, grade calculations and other variables within the calculation on a short timeline may have contributed to a reduction in clarity of the system," Bennett told board members.

This is a fundamental change to the A-F system, which proponents see as a clear, transparent system easy (or relatively easy) for parents and other members of the public to understand. However the grades have been related to each other previously, those relationships are going to change over the next two school years in Florida.

Who doesn't like this shift? The K-12 advocacy organization led by the former Florida governor who oversaw the creation of the A-F system in the first place, Jeb Bush. The Foundation for Florida's Future, in a July 16 letter to the state board, notes that complaints about the A-F system date back to 1999 when it was instituted. Such complaints, the foundation stated, alleged they were unfair, but by holding firm, its supporters have proven the systems's worth.

"In one sense, the superintendents are victims of their own success," the foundation's executive director, Patricia Levesque, wrote. "They have become so adept at producing A's and B's that these grades have become something of an entitlement. The parents and public have grown to expect them, and elected officials and superintendents are under pressure not to disappoint."

The A-F system instituted by Bush is perhaps one of the most high-profile state-based accountability policies to arise over the last 15 years. Earlier this month, the Foundation reported that 14 states as well as New York City have adopted A-F school grading systems. But that doesn't mean the policy has been free of problems, as Indiana has learned over the past year. In Indiana's case, the formula going into the school grades can get "so complicated that even state superintendent Glenda Ritz cannot advise local educators how to improve their final rating," StateImpact NPR in Indiana reported in May.

Speaking of Indiana, one of the hallmarks of Bennett's tenure there as state superintendent (it ended when Ritz beat him in the 2012 election) was his determination to set high bars for students, teachers, and others to clear. Just consider this testimony he gave to the Education and the Workforce Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, when he stated, "My role as state superintendent is to set high expectations for student performance and enforce strict accountability measures." Not a huge number of folks would disagree that's where he focused his energy, although there's big disagreement about whether that focus was misplaced or damaging.

So to have Bennett actively push for such a major change to Florida's (arguably) signature education policy that objectively reduces the strictness of school accountability is a story with both immediate and potentially broad significance. Will other states with A-F school grading systems, from Arizona to Virginia, also get a little queasy about the possibility of their accountability systems getting severely disrupted (and many schools' grades badly damaged) thanks to common core? Keep in mind, though, that Bennett says that issues he identified with the grading system in light of common core will remain for the 2015-16 school year, when the approved "relaxation" ends.

This could have federal implications as well. Such a change to the state's accountability system might in theory impact the state's waiver from certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. The early indications from the Florida department is that it doesn't look like it will, at least in its view, but I will update with more information as it becomes available.

By the way, Bennett is a member of Chiefs for Change, an advocacy group that pushes for A-F systems, as well as teacher evaluations based on student growth and school choice. Chiefs for Change is an affiliate of ... you guessed it, the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

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