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A Times Editorial

Confusing school grades

An administrative blunder points out, once again, the basic problems with the governor's school-grading system.

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

Imagine being handed a test with no idea of how it would be graded. Imagine receiving an F and not being able to determine why. Imagine being called to the principal's office and scolded anyway.

This is the 2002 version of school accountability in Florida, and it explains, in part, why not all educators were content to sit politely while Gov. Jeb Bush wagged his finger at

F-rated schools in a summit called by the state Department of Education. Deborah Turner, the highly regarded principal of Blanton Elementary School in St. Petersburg, worked her way past others in the crowd to reach the governor. "This system is dispiriting to a lot of our principals," Turner told him. "We believe all children can learn. Children do learn at our school. But sometimes it takes a little longer."

The grading system does not allow for such nuance, of course, because it is driven by the results of one test, administered by the state, and one grading scale, formulated by the state, that has changed four times in four years. It is also the source of a curious administrative blunder this year. More than a month after the grades were released and more than a week after the deadline has passed for schools to formally challenge their grades, the state has yet to deliver the full information to school districts that would allow them to replicate how DOE arrived at the results.

This is no small matter. Schools that are awarded F's can be closed by the state and their students offered private vouchers. Schools awarded A's can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonus money. Last year, in Pinellas, the difference between a B and an A at Lake St. George Elementary was the state's misclassification of one student.

Education Secretary Jim Horne reacted to criticism by telling the Tampa Tribune that "districts have received straight answers, accurate data and quick responses to their questions." But his own legislative affairs director, Kathy Mizereck, admitted at the summit that more information was needed. Horne has promised that DOE's testing director, Gerry Richardson, will meet with district administrators on July 31 to offer more data, which is a commendable step, if obviously overdue. Extending the deadline for grade appeals would seem a natural next step.

This to and fro over "cut scores," "logarithmic trend-lines" and "statistical smoothing" may seem like an analytical sideshow. But it gets to the heart of Bush's A+

Plan. This is a plan that pretends a standardized test, a computer and a DOE bureaucrat can accurately assess the quality of teaching that goes on 180 days a year in 2,515 schools across Florida. But school evaluation is not that simple. Upon his inauguration, Bush asserted that "the best and brightest ideas do not come from the state capital." As applied to his school grading system, that now seems obvious.

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