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State to alter its formula to grade schools

State schools will have three ways to show student progress to earn points that determines the annual grade.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2001


State schools will have three ways to show student progress to earn points that determines the annual grade.

Principals and teachers, take note: The lowest-performing students who have been dragging down your school grades could soon be your best friend.

Under a new proposal for assigning school grades, the state plans to award points, even valuable "bonus points," for improvement among the lowest-scoring students.

"Now these kids in the lowest 25 percent can raise your school a letter grade," said Gerry Richardson, director of evaluation and reporting for the Florida Department of Education.

That's just one feature of a new proposal made public Wednesday that will greatly change how Florida assigns A-through-F letter grades to public schools. The plan is expected to be approved by the state Board of Education at its Dec. 18 meeting.

The new system is a three-pronged approach -- with bonus points tacked on -- that essentially gives schools three chances to collect points: annual scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), improvement from one year to the next, and improvement among the lowest-performing students. When those points are tallied, they determine a school's letter grade.

It's a complex formula that attempts to equal the playing field among schools. It includes several firsts for Florida, chief among them the fact that the state is endeavoring to truly measure student progress from one year to the next.

Until now, the state's accountability plan has appeared to measure academic progress, but teachers knew better. The state has been comparing one group of fourth-graders with a different group of fourth-graders from the previous year. That was necessary, because, for instance, the state gave the reading test only to students in grades 4, 8 and 10. By necessity, accountability was based on a series of snapshots.

Now with testing in grades 3 through 10, the state is trading in the snapshots for video. Starting this year for instance, the state will be comparing this year's fourth-graders to last year's third-graders -- the same kids.

This is a feature that teachers have been clamoring for and Gov. Jeb Bush has been promising since he took office.

"This brings us so much closer to where we wanted to be," said Richardson, the chief architect of the plan. "We're finally measuring those learning gains."

The proposal includes several other firsts.

The state will give schools an incentive for getting students to write at a higher level.

Until now, the state standard for writing was in the middle of the scale for the writing test -- a 3 out of a possible 6. Teachers have been criticized for teaching students a dry, formulaic approach for writing essays that hit the target score of 3, but didn't do much more. Now teachers have incentive for bringing their students up to a score of a 4.

"We knew that was coming; the scores have gone up so steadily, it was time to raise our sights," said Darian Walker, supervisor for secondary language arts for the Pinellas County schools.

Schools also are being given clear incentives for focusing on improvement among the lowest-performing students, those in the lowest 25 percent academically. First, a school can earn one point for each percentage of low-performing students who move from Level One to Level Two (out of five levels) in reading from one year to the next. Beyond that, they can earn "bonus points" -- one point for each student in the lowest 25 percent who makes a big leap in reading scores.

Details of the proposal are available on the Department of Education Web site at www.firn.edu/doe.

A new formula

The state's proposed system for school grades is based on three factors. The last two are new.

Annual performance on FCAT. Schools get points for the percentage of students who meet the state's standards in reading, writing and math. That is like the current system, except the standards are higher.

Academic progress from one year to the next. For the first time, the state would award points based on the progress of the same group of students from year to year.

Improvement by the lowest-performing students. For the first time, the state would award points for reading progress among students in the lowest 25 percent.

-- Source: Florida Department of Education

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