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New state yardstick to measure schools

The new grading system toughens standards for students and rewards schools for improving student scores.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2001


The new grading system toughens standards for students and rewards schools for improving student scores.

TALLAHASSEE -- With a new school grading system approved Tuesday, Florida schools are likely to find it tougher to get an A rating from the state, and tougher to avoid an F.

The grading system unanimously approved by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet includes a system for measuring individual student academic improvement in reading and math from one year to the next. Now, Florida joins a handful of states, including Tennessee and North Carolina, that measure student progress on year-to-year tests.

The new system demands students meet higher standards in reading, writing and math. It also rewards schools for achieving improvement among the lowest-performing students, and contains consequences for schools that fail to bring those students along.

"We have an accountability system that is really second to none now," said Bush, adding that he expects the system to remain largely unchanged for the near future. That's good news to educators who have had to adjust to new wrinkles in the accountability system year after year.

Principals and teachers who have complained that the old grading system didn't accurately measure the progress made in classrooms, generally welcome the changes. The grades are important because good grades bring rewards; this year the state spent $75-million to reward schools with good grades. They also bring sanctions; if a school earns an F grade in two of four years, the students become eligible for a voucher to pay tuition at a private school.

"If they measure real progress, it will be better for my school," said Leila Mizer, principal at the D-rated R.B. Cox Elementary School in Dade City. "All my children are making gains. They don't always make the mark the state has set, but they are making gains."

Bush has been promising an accountability system like this since he became governor. As he faces a re-election campaign next year with education a central issue, the well-being of the state's public schools will be largely defined by the A-through-F school grades and the new accountability plan.

Will there be a new wave of F-rated schools? A new round of vouchers?

It's impossible to predict. But Bush and state officials say they hope and expect the results are similar to those from last school year. They even included a safety valve to ensure that. As part of the new system, Education Commissioner Charlie Crist has the authority to shift the grading scale by a factor of 5 percent if the results are out of whack.

But the new system is not a complete shot in the dark. Gerry Richardson, the state's director of evaluation, ran a rough -- very rough -- set of projections showing little change, but a few more A- and B-rated schools, fewer C's and D's, and perhaps a few F-rated schools.

Using those rough estimates, Richardson's best guess is that the state might end up with as many as 75 F-rated schools. They expect fewer than that. Interestingly, that high-end number is very close to the 78 F-rated schools the state started out with three years ago when school grades were given for the first time. The state currently has no F-rated schools.

"Anyone who says this is a gotcha is missing the point," said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. "Teach them to read and write and compute, and you will be successful under any system we put in."

The new system is a hybrid of sorts, combining some of the old system with some new features. The biggest change is the focus on student progress from year to year. School grades were based on student scores in grades 4, 5, 8 and 10, comparing one year's fourth-graders to the next year's -- different children altogether. Now, with testing in grades 3 through 10, the state will hold schools accountable for how a student progresses from one year to the next. With testing in grades 3 through 10, Florida already is doing more than will be required under President Bush's new national education package passed by Congress on Tuesday.

The other big change is the focus on the lowest-performing students in a school. Schools earn points when those students improve.

After three factors -- scores, overall progress and the progress of the lowest-performing students -- are evaluated, the state assigns points to each area for reading, writing and math.

Because of the points system, it will be nearly impossible for a school to avoid an F by focusing on one subject area; many schools have relied on writing scores to avoid the F rating.

"If writing was the only thing that kept a school from getting an F, they should evaluate their instruction," said Deputy Commissioner of Education Betty Cox. "This is going to require people to examine their world a little differently."

For more information on the new system, see the Web site at www.firn.edu/doe and click on "FCAT and school grading rule amendments."

Students will take the tests in February and March. Results are expected back before the end of the school year. School grades are expected back in mid June.

New FCAT guidelines

Until now, Florida assigned school grades based on the percentage of fourth-, fifth-, eighth-, and 10th-grade students meeting state standards in reading, writing and math. Under the new system, grades at the end of this school year will be based on three factors:

Students in grades 3 through 10 meeting the state standards in reading, writing and math.

The learning gains those students make in reading and math from one year to the next.

The improvement in reading scores among the lowest-performing students.

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