Dropping FCAT penalty could get testy

A key but unpopular accountability provision draws support from unexpected quarters.

Published June 16, 2007

State Rep. Curtis Richardson is no fan of the school accountability system rammed into place by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. If the Tallahassee Democrat had his way, he'd demolish the whole thing and start over.

But if there is anything redeeming about that system, he says, it's the part the state Department of Education -- reeling from the disclosure of a botched Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test -- now says it will considering scrapping.

Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg said this week she'd like to suspend a key but unpopular component of the state's school grading formula -- a component crafted during the Bush years that penalizes schools when a majority of struggling students, often poor and minority, don't make learning gains.

Teachers, principals and superintendents have long complained about the provision. And many of them welcomed Blomberg's recommendation, which will go before the state Board of Education for a vote Tuesday.

But Richardson is among those who, perhaps surprisingly, don't like what they hear.

"I'm not so sure it's a good idea," said Richardson, a member of the House Education Council and the Legislature's Black Caucus. Putting more weight on struggling students in the school-grading formula forces schools "to pay more attention to them and give them more resources."

Blomberg announced the proposal Wednesday, to a high-profile advisory panel that was formed after state education officials disclosed they had botched last year's FCAT in third-grade reading. She recommended the provision be suspended for the calculation of this year's school grades -- which are expected later this month -- while alternatives are considered in coming months.

"This temporary suspension, or any future, long-term changes, should in no way be viewed as a lowering of standards," Blomberg said in a written statement Friday. Any changes "will ensure schools focus their efforts on their struggling students, are recognized for outstanding progress and held accountable through a method that is fair and reasonable."

Panel members, including superintendents and district testing directors, gave the idea a thumbs up. Other observers gave the Education Department credit for considering change.

"We've got to take some actions to regain the confidence and the trust of the people in the system," said Jim Warford, a former superintendent and K-12 chancellor who now heads the Florida Association of School Administrators.

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At first glance, the latest scrap over school policy doesn't look like much of a fight. In one corner: a lot of angry educators, a lot of angry parents and a scandal-weakened Department of Education.

In the other: a former governor, a few out-of-state think tanks and lawmakers who have been preoccupied for months with property tax cuts.

But there are signs this could get interesting.

Bush weighed in Thursday night, telling the St. Petersburg Times in an e-mail that the proposal is not a good idea. "I don't believe there should be a change," he wrote. "As a state, we should be looking for ways to raise expectations rather than lower them."

And on Friday, state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, fired off a letter to Board of Education Chairman T. Willard Fair, saying the proposal "seems to be ill-considered."

Giving extra weight to the academic performance of struggling students isn't punishment, it's a value judgement, wrote Gaetz, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "The State has said it's important that those who need the most help aren't lost in the averaging of a school grade but are identified, diagnosed and effectively taught."

The former governor and the Senate chairman might find allies in unexpected places.

"This issue should have been vetted before a wider audience," said Richardson, who planned to immediately contact other Black Caucus members.

Currently, a school is penalized a full letter grade if more than half of its students in the bottom 25 percent don't make FCAT gains in reading and math. If schools don't find a way to reach those kids, their grades suffer, their reputations take a hit and they lose out on modest pots of bonus money.

"This is the one and only aspect of the Florida accountability plan that requires schools to focus on the lowest-performing groups of kids," said Daria Hall, an assistant policy director with Education Trust, an independent group based in Washington, D.C., that aims to eliminate the achievement gap. "To remove this from the accountability plan is going to negatively impact those groups of kids and their families and their communities."

It's anybody's guess how the Board of Education will come down.

Since its creation in 2003, the board has time and again backed unpopular policies tied to the FCAT and Bush's vision of school reform. But with a new governor and a smoldering FCAT controversy, Tuesday's vote may be the first real test of whether the board is willing to shift direction.

Fair, the board chairman, is a close Bush ally who was re-appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist. He declined to comment.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.