After the results from the latest round of Florida's standardized tests turned out to be lower than expected, district superintendents around the state asked the Board of Education to manually adjust school ratings derived from these results fewer schools received failing grades. This week, in a 4-3 vote, board members agreed to tweak school grades for the second year in a row.
This means that like last year, the grades received by the schools won't drop by more than one letter from last year. As Jeffery S. Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times writes, this means that 154 schools that were supposed to receive F grades will not do so.
Limiting how far each school grade can fall from year to year was recommended by Florida's new Education Commissioner Tony Bennett. Bennett thought that this would prevent school grades from vacillating wildly while the state works to fully roll out tougher educational standards to all its districts.
However, the unexpectedly close board vote highlighted concern that continued adjustment of the grading system could lead to a situation where ratings will lose any meaning at all.
But debate among board members raised significant questions about whether the A-F grading model, which has been copied in several states, has become invalid in its 14 years.
"We've overcomplicated the model," said veteran board member Kathleen Shanahan, once the chief of staff for former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is widely considered the author of Florida's school grading system. "I am struggling with the integrity of the accountability system . . . and the reliability of the grades."
Said Bradshaw: "I don't understand when it became acceptable to disguise and manipulate the truth simply because the truth is uncomfortable."
Doubts were expressed even by those members who, in the end, supported the proposal to pad the grades, like Chairman Gary Chartrand. Prior to casting his vote, he said that asking the board to continually change the standards for grade assignment like this could be an indicator that the A-F system has outlived its usefulness. However, he expressed hope that Bennett is in a good position to remedy the problem in the coming years.
Concerns over such manipulations arose in 2012, when the state board lowered the passing score for the FCAT writing exam to avoid a dip in grades. Board members said the changes were temporary, aimed at helping schools adjust to new standards.
This year, as superintendents continued to warn that grades would drop because of machinations with the formula, board members called for a review. That led to Bennett's "safety net" on school grades and the debate over whether it harmed the system's validity.
Bradshaw argued the model had grown heavy with politics, straying from its mission of monitoring whether students are doing well on the FCAT.