Grading schools up for makeover

The state's education czar calls for more accountability measures than FCAT scores.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 16, 2008

Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith opened the door Tuesday to changing the formula for grading schools, offering the strongest sign yet that Florida's accountability system is in line for a makeover.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, Smith said measures such as participation and scores on high-caliber Advanced Placement tests and industrial certifications for vocational students should be considered in a discussion about revamping school grades.

"We probably need to look at a broader array of tools to measure school performance," said Smith, who began work as Florida's new education czar last month.

The current grading system, put in place by former Gov. Jeb Bush, hinges entirely on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which measures student performance in reading, writing, math and science. It carries with it both a stick (the stigma of a bad grade) and a carrot (reward money that is often divvied up into modest teacher bonuses).

Smith's comments dovetail with other recent signals that change is coming.

In November, a contingent of state education leaders, including two Board of Education members allied with Gov. Charlie Crist, flew to New York to take a closer look at that state's Regents exams, a system of standardized tests that measures a broader array of high school subjects than the FCAT.

A key state lawmaker, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is also pushing for changes in the grading formula, particularly the inclusion of high school graduation rates. Gaetz is chairman of the Senate education committee.

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said Smith's comments were a good sign, but not unexpected.

Given Florida's anemic graduation rates, it's clear Bush's system is falling short when it comes to high schools, said Gelber, the House minority leader and a frequent critic of Bush's education initiatives.

Smith told the editorial board that Florida needs to "raise the floor and the ceiling" when it comes to student achievement.

In an interview, he cited other measures that might help do that in the grading formula, such as dual enrollment courses with community colleges.

Those kinds of programs, he said, help "fuzz up" the transition between high school and college.