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With scores in, schools question state criteria

By LINDA CHION-KENNEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 1999


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Click here to see an enlargement of the making the grade chart
[Times art]
TAMPA -- Assistant principal Kathy Stokes couldn't wait to celebrate the new grades the state was awarding to its public schools. She knew her school, Brooker Elementary in Brandon, had what it took to get an A.

Brooker had beaten the state benchmarks for A-school test scores by 22 points in writing, 20 in reading and 2 in math. Moreover, the expulsion and absentee rates were below state averages.

So why did Brooker get a B?

It's all in the fine print.

Despite a stellar showing in the reading section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Brooker's fourth-graders scored 2 percentage points lower than fourth-graders in 1998. Getting an A required an increase of more than 2 points.

"I know the state is trying to raise standards, but I think it's kind of nit-picking and disheartening for some little thing like that to keep us from getting an A," Stokes said. "It could have been a difference in three kids."

If those three students had scored higher, Brooker would have gotten an A, and the bonus money that comes with that distinction.

Educators have been spending the past week examining school scores and raising questions about the complex criteria behind the seemingly simple grades.

As Brooker discovered, the grading game works both ways.

If Brooker had tested just three more black students -- the state considers them a subgroup -- it would have gotten a C, even if the students scored well. That's because the 27 black students who did take the FCAT reading test failed to meet the benchmark. But a subgroup counts only if it includes at least 30 children.

School after school found their grades affected by a handful of students.

Plant High missed an A because its absenteeism rate was six-tenths of a percentage point too high. Likewise, McLane Middle School missed an A by 4 percentage points in the same category. And if one more student at Sulphur Springs Elementary had scored below 3 on Florida Writes, the school would have gotten an F, not a D. If a school gets an F two years in a row, students can get vouchers for private schools.

"A lot of principals, a lot of teachers, a lot of us even at the district level didn't fully understand the nuances that are beginning to surface," said Donnie Evans, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent for instruction. "Many of us were not aware of the impact that one or two or three or four kids might have on a school's score."

Overall, though, such nuances matter little as Hillsborough gears up to meet a goal to have every school move up at least one grade level next year.

"There's no question that the criteria for grades should be looked at, but we're not going to whine and cry," said School Superintendent Earl Lennard. "Whether we like them or not, whether we believe in them or not, the grades are with us and we're going to deal with them."

In all, six elementary schools and one middle school received the highest grade, A. Every high school but Plant scored a C. Twenty-two elementary and five middle schools scored a B, while 43 elementary and 22 middle schools scored a C. And 35 elementary and six middle schools scored a D. There were no F schools.

An analysis by the Times shows:

A major obstacle for high schools to score a B is the state requirement that at least 50 percent of students score at or above a Level 3 on FCAT reading. Only one of the district's 19 high schools, Plant, met that benchmark.

Twelve of the district's 34 middle schools failed to meet the benchmarks for a B in both reading and math, while another five schools failed to meet the benchmark in reading only.

Forty of the district's 106 elementary schools failed to meet the benchmarks for a B in both reading and math, while another 23 schools failed to meet the benchmark in math only. Only one school, Anderson, missed the mark in reading alone. Eleven schools missed the mark in reading, math and writing.

No high schools and only seven middle and 28 elementary schools met the absentee rate requirement. Only four high schools met the dropout rate requirement. And 11 high schools, 25 middle schools and 57 elementary schools missed the benchmark for out-of-school suspensions.

"Very clearly, the results show that attendance is an issue, the suspension rate's an issue and, as we know, we have to continue working on reading, especially in the high school," said Deputy Superintendent Beth Shields.

Plant High principal Vince Sussman said the focus of language arts curriculum up to the 10th grade has been to prepare students for Florida's High School Competency Test, a minimum skills test required for graduation but not for state grades. FCAT assesses literature and interpretation, which are not covered in-depth until the 11th and 12th grades, he said.

School officials said they will look into that issue when they develop plans for curriculum adjustments.

But Sussman's greater concern involves the ranking of schools that serve different populations of students. It isn't fair, he said, to judge all schools against the same standard when some schools have a tougher mission.

"There are some schools that serve devastatingly poor populations, and they take these kids an awful long way," he said. "If a kid goes from an F to a C, that's a tremendous accomplishment. What happens with a kid going from a B to an A? Is that a tremendous accomplishment?"

Indeed, the Times' analysis shows that, on average, the percentage of poor students in D elementary schools was 83.1 versus 38.3 percent in the A and B schools combined. In the higher-graded schools, 6 percent of the students had limited English proficiency, compared with 16.1 percent in the D schools. The mobility rate, which accounts for student turnover during a school year, involving students moving from one school to another, was 56.2 percent in the D schools, but just 25.2 percent in the A schools.

Evans said these findings do not surprise him. But he wants to keep the focus on higher expectations for all children, regardless of background. Wanting to avoid damaging stigmas, he warns against "blaming a student or group of students or even a teacher for a school's results."

That's why Sussman endorses an accountability system that grades a school according to how far it takes a student over time. He calls the current system "absurd," because it's primarily based on one testing season and three assessments: Florida Writes in Grades 4, 8 and 10; FCAT reading in Grade 4; and FCAT math in Grade 5.

"How would you like to be judged on four days of work out of the year, and I pick the four days?" Sussman said. "What matters most is the level a kid is at when they enter your school, and then what level they're at when they leave. That's the incredible part of education."

But changing the grading system isn't likely any time soon, or something local school officials plan to spend much energy on.

"I wouldn't say it's good or bad," Evans said. "I would say it just is, and our challenge is to respond and to identify areas we need to work on. The more we procrastinate about whether it's good or bad, the more time we lose and the more energy we expend that could be spent on improving our grades."

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