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 Grading Florida's Schools

Florida school grades in: 78 fail; most get C's, D's

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 1999


Check your school's statistics from the state Department of Education Web site.
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida public schools got a giant new report card Thursday, revealing excellence to failure at the nearly 2,500 schools assigned letter grades based on how their students are performing.

In all, 78 schools flunked under the state's controversial new grading system, the first time easy-to-understand A through F grades have been used to rate schools in Florida.

Another 600 schools were on the brink of failure with D grades. About half the schools got a mediocre grade of C; 317 schools got B's, and only 185 schools got A's.

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No schools got F's in the Tampa Bay area, but Hillsborough had the most D schools in the area, 39. Pinellas schools got the most A's in the state -- at 18 schools.

The schools that flunked, in 15 counties around Florida, will have a year to get to a higher grade or the state's new voucher law will kick in: Children at the schools will get taxpayer dollars to transfer to a better public school or private schools that can include religious schools. More than 57,000 students could get vouchers, according to the most recent statewide enrollment figures, making Florida's voucher program by far the largest in the nation.

Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said Thursday that the news was better than he had expected. When lawmakers were working on school reforms this past spring, education officials said 169 schools could get F grades, based on projections from test scores.

But results from 1999 tests pushed the number of F schools down. "There's been quite a lot of accomplishment in the districts," Gallagher said. "That doesn't mean the work's done by any means."

The school grades are part of the most expansive education reforms in at least two decades in Florida.

Under a law signed last week by Gov. Jeb Bush, all schools will be graded primarily on student performance on state tests in reading, math, writing and, ultimately, science.

The grading system is a complicated mixture of test scores and percentages. But generally, the more children who get at least a C grade on state tests, the better the school will look.

Here's one example: An elementary school got a C grade this year if at least half of its fourth-graders scored 3 out of 6 on the Florida Writes Test; at least 60 percent of its fourth-graders got at least a 275 out of 500 on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test; and at least 60 percent of its fifth-graders get 288 out of 500 on the math FCAT. For an A or B grade, the requirements are tougher. For example, at least 67 percent of children need to get a 3 on the Florida Writes, and at least 50 percent of the children need to get 326 out of 500 on the math FCAT.

In the past, Florida has developed a list of "critically low-performing" schools based on test scores, but it has never assigned letter grades, said Gerry Richardson, director of evaluation and reporting at the Department of Education.

For the first time this year, Florida is considering factors such as drop-out rates and absenteeism when judging schools. A school can't get an A, for example, unless its absenteeism rate for students out of class for more than 20 days is better than the state average.

In addition, Richardson said, Florida for the first time is considering the performance of its most struggling students in assigning grades to school. A school can't get an A or B grade if certain populations of students such as poor minority children aren't getting at least a C grade on the state tests. That means schools will have to work hard to get all their students up to par -- not just rely on the best students to pull up average test scores.

The policy reflects an emphasis by the Bush administration that all children should be able to learn, regardless of poverty or family background.

Overall, the new grading system has been a source of controversy among educators. Teachers unions and some lawmakers tried unsuccessfully this past legislative session to soften the language of the grading system. Instead of an F, for example, a school could have been described as needing substantial improvement.

"We have rejected the concept of labeling from the very beginning," said Cathy Kelly, of the FTP-NEA, the largest teachers union in Florida. "We think it hurts -- it stigmatizes rather than motivates."

But proponents say the grading system will force schools to improve to avoid an F or D label.

The grades released Thursday offer a sometimes alarming look at Florida's school districts.

In poverty-stricken Gadsden County, outside the state capital, the best grade was a C -- at one school. Twelve schools got a D and two schools got an F.

Gallagher said state education officials are working closely with Gadsden on a plan to improve the school district. The plans include extending the school year throughout the district from 180 to 210 days.

In Escambia County in the Panhandle, two failing elementary schools will become the first in the state to be eligible for vouchers this upcoming school year. But the other schools aren't faring that well, either. Five more schools got F grades, and 12 schools got D's, in the grades released Thursday.

Patty Hightower, president-elect of the Florida PTA, whose son just graduated from an Escambia high school, said she wasn't surprised by the report card for her county. Despite the failing grades for some of the schools, she said, there is still optimism.

She has spoken to parents at the F schools eligible for vouchers. "Most of the parents say they don't understand why," Hightower said. "They have seen that their children are getting a good education. They are loved, they are taken care of, they are getting educated. Unfortunately, they are not up to national standards."

Like many other F schools in Florida, Escambia's failing schools have particularly high concentrations of students eligible for free or reduced lunch -- a key indicator of poverty. With high poverty and children struggling with English, Dade County had the most F schools in Florida, 26.

Kelly, of the teachers union, said lawmakers need to pay close attention to that factor, as well as the point that a far greater number of elementary schools are failing. Of the 78 schools graded F, 67 are elementary schools.

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