StateImpact: A to F School Grade Makeover?

Aug 12, 2013

Florida’s system of giving schools grades from A through F has been in the spotlight this summer. First, state officials made last-minute changes that prevented more than 150 schools from dropping to F grades.

Then, Florida’s education commissioner Tony Bennett resigned over reports that he manipulated school grades in Indiana when he was in charge of schools there.

Florida pioneered the A thru F school grade system in 1999. But now, even supporters are saying it’s time to revisit the formula.

So what should the new system look like?

The general idea behind Florida’s school grade system has always been the same: schools are graded on how well their students are performing. Former Gov. Jeb Bush championed the idea, and spread it to other states.

At first, the grades were based on student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The grading was simple and fairly easy for anyone to understand. But over the years, the state has added more than 20 components to elementary, middle and high school grades.

Components like: how many kids take Advanced Placement classes? How much have the scores changed from one class to the next? What’s the year-to year change in graduation rates?

Kathleen Shanahan, on a conference call with other members of the State Board of Education, said, " I don’t think it’s a statistically valid model”, and she’s a big supporter of grading schools. She was Jeb Bush’s Chief of Staff.

The formula has been tweaked every year since 2010. And more changes are on the way.

Florida has adopted new education standards which come with a new test. Education officials say they’ll have to rewrite the school grading formula.

Retired teacher Barbara Van Diepen doesn’t see much value in her granddaughter’s school grade:

“You can’t help but notice them because so much to-do is made about them but I don’t think you can give them that much credibility”, said Van Diepen.

She wishes school grades compared students to themselves. That’s not how it works now. Florida takes test scores from this year’s third graders and compares them to last year’s 3rd graders.

Robin Godby teaches psychology at Broward College. She’s noticed that students from A schools aren’t necessarily ready for higher education. She also has two children in middle school.

As a parent I’d like to know the type of teachers, the quality of teachers", Godby said. "They don’t tell you that."

The people who study these accountability systems say Florida has the right priorities. Northwestern University researcher David Figlio likes that Florida emphasizes improvements made by the students who score lowest on tests.

“All of those things mean that the state, through its grading system, is telling schools ‘we care about all the kids in your school’”, Figlio said.

But Florida’s system doesn’t include some important things that are harder to measure: Teacher collaboration and morale; communication with parents; administrative efficiency.

Figlio says because schools aren’t graded on these things, they become a lower priority.

"My advice to Florida is to keep doing the things you do right and to contemplate introducing some things that are challenging right now", Figlio said. "I would love to see Florida maintain an accountability system - Which I think is one of the better ones in the world. But I’d also love to see Florida introduce an inspectorate system, in which you get to go and look at the way in which the schools are actually doing business."

We don’t know if any of these suggestions will make it into Florida’s A thru F school grade formula.But we do know that formula will definitely be changing.

And if history’s any guide, changing the formula won’t necessarily make it any easier for parents to understand.