Standards issue as school grades rise
By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
Rules say math and reading standards must rise, but Education Commissioner Jim Horne wants a delay.
Published October 22, 2003
ORLANDO - Now that the majority of Florida schools are getting A grades from the state, education officials are facing a new question: Is it time to raise reading and math standards and make things tougher?
State rules say yes. The officials aren't so sure.
Board of Education rules written in 1998 say the state must raise reading and math standards this school year. But Education Commissioner Jim Horne told board members Tuesday he wants to revise the rules and delay the increase.
If the board approves that approach next month, Florida schools are likely to earn an abundance of A and B grades and very few F's during 2004, which is an election year.
At least one member of the Board of Education opposes the delay.
"We need to set the standard where it should be, and the students will respond," said board member Charles Garcia. He said the board is a nonpolitical body that should not be overly concerned with projections of failure rates.
But others were quite concerned.
"I want to understand the impact it will have on each category of student - especially minority students," said board member Julia Johnson. "There's a lot that I have to think about over the course of the next month."
"Public policy and politics do intersect," said board chairman Phil Handy. "We need to look at the impact."
Despite significant gains over the years, Florida's minority children still perform lower than their peers on the various components of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is used to determine school grades.
For instance, 18 percent of white fourth-graders scored in the lowest achievement level in reading in 1998, a number that improved to 9 percent in 2003. But while African-American fourth-graders improved by 27 percentage points in reading over that time period, 31 percent were still reading at the lowest level.
State rules call for changes this school year in the five achievement areas that define whether a student's test score amounts to an acceptable academic performance. If those achievement levels are raised, it will take a higher score to demonstrate acceptable performance.
"The criticism I get is we change the rules all the time," Horne said. "We need to stabilize things a bit. We know we've had success with raising standards. But we need to find the right time."
Even if the board accepts Horne's recommendation, standards will get tougher. Horne said he is recommending the inclusion of special education scores in the grade calculations next school year. He also is recommending that the writing standard be raised. But that should have little impact because so many students already are exceeding the state standards.
State testing director Cornelia Orr said the state eventually will raise the standard for all achievement levels, which could particularly affect third-graders.
"Students at Grade 3 would have to meet a higher standard or be retained," Orr said. Thousands of students statewide are being required to repeat third grade this year because they failed to meet the state standard in reading.
In other matters:
The board accepted a report from the Universal Prekindergarten Education Advisory Council chaired by Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings. The council's report made recommendations for carrying out the new constitutional mandate for voluntary prekindergarten for all the state's 4-year-olds.
The state expects to provide prekindergarten for about 150,000 students, up from the 60,000 served now. The total cost could be as low as $425-million or as high as $650-million.
The board approved improvement plans for five F-rated schools, including the Tampa United Methodist Charter School in Tampa. Board staff members still have concerns about the qualifications of the school's administrators and their analysis of student achievement data. The board resolved to keep a close watch on the school's progress.
The board announced the resignation of member Sally Bradshaw, who stepped down earlier this month. Bradshaw, former chief of staff for Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed her to the board, said she had been offered a "private sector opportunity which will require a substantial time commitment." She also said she wanted to spend more time with her young children.
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