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Grade A schools may find it tough

Florida's system for grading schools might make it hard to get high grades two years in a row.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 11, 1999

Wilson Middle School principal Jean Hamilton had one of those school years any principal would envy. Her eighth-graders posted the highest writing scores in the state. Her Tampa school was one of the few middle schools to earn an A in Florida's new grading system.

Hamilton was walking on air. Briefly.

"I basked in that for about two seconds," she said, "until I said, "Oh no! Now what are we going to do?' "

In a state where schools are graded by their students' performance and by improvement from one year to the next, Hamilton and a few other principals are pondering a tough question: When your scores are already sky high, can you keep improving?

Facing a new school year and a new round of tests, they fear that even another round of excellent scores might not be enough to score an A next year.

"It's going to be very tough to stay on top," said Judith Westfall, associate superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction for the Pinellas County schools, which had more A's (18) than any other Florida school district. "Statistically, it's easier to show improvement when your scores start out lower. Schools that are doing a tremendous job could easily slip a grade."

The state anticipated those concerns. Schools that have exceptionally high test scores actually have a slight bit of wiggle room. They can slip a little and not be penalized. But only a little. As Gerald Richardson, director of management and evaluation services for the Florida Department of Education, put it: To get an A for a second year, "you need to improve or pretty much maintain your scores."

"I hope we can maintain that A, but I think it will be a roller coaster -- A, B, maybe back to A," said Len Kizner, principal at Bay Vista Fundamental in St. Petersburg, which earned an A this year. "I hope parents understand that."

Educators scrambling to understand the state's new grading system also question whether the state's yardstick for measuring improvement is all that meaningful.

Although Florida is developing an expanded testing system that will enable educators to chart students' growth over time, the system is not yet in place. Instead, the state is scrutinizing scores from one group of students one year and comparing them to an altogether different group of students the next year.

"It's the different cohort problem -- and that makes the comparison suspect at best," said Monty Neill, executive director for FairTest, a group that monitors standardized testing around the nation.

Educators and reporters have been doing it for years: making comparisons and drawing conclusions based on scores from two different sets of children.

"Scores are going to vary because they're different kids; that makes sense," said Neill. "What doesn't make sense is judging the staff or the curriculum based on those slight changes from one year to the next."

Neill and others believe it makes more sense to look at the performance of the same group of children over time. In fact, that's one of the hottest trends in education today. The "value-added" system pioneered in Tennessee looks at consecutive years of testing and measures the progress of an entire class of children, or even an individual child.

Soon, Florida will be able to do the same.

In recent years, the state has tested children in reading, writing and math once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school. In the coming year the state will try out a new, expanded, consecutive-year testing system -- testing children in grades three through 10. It will enable the state to measure progress and improvement year after year.

But Florida doesn't have the tools in place to measure improvement in that way yet.

"It's a case of putting the cart before the horse," said Westfall. "While it's not a bad idea conceptually, I'm not sure we've put it all together yet. But we're doing it anyway."

Richardson of DOE, whose job it is to make the state's accountability laws a reality, acknowledged the shortcomings of the current system of comparisons.

"It certainly has its limitations," Richardson said. "But that's been the traditional way the data have been framed."

With the introduction of consecutive year testing next year, Richardson said, "we'll be able to do it better."

Kizner of Bay Vista Fundamental said that until the state moves to a consecutive-year-testing system where year-by-year comparisons are possible, the idea of measuring improvement could be misleading.

"This isn't apples to apples," Kizner said. "These are different kids every year. There are tons of variables.

"We did well this year, and we have very high expectations for next year. But everybody has to understand, it's a completely different group of kids."

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