Florida School Grades Confusing Issue For New Residents

School quality is always a concern for relocating parents. In a world where a good education is increasingly important, many parents even base their final decision about home choice on the reported quality of the schools in various neighborhoods.

Here in Florida, the state’s A+ school reporting plan is supposed to give parents an easy way to compare schools with one another at a glance, but many question whether the system really reflects the situation accurately. When the Florida Department of Education released the school grades for 2007 a couple of weeks ago, there seemed to be more confusion and controversy than information in the published reports.

If you were a parent trying to decide where to relocate, you’d be understandably confused by the newspaper reports announcing the gains and losses over the preceding year. In Orlando, the papers announced that school grades had taken a nose dive. In Palm Beach, they reported that there were dramatic improvements – and crushing drops. In Tampa, the papers admitted to confusion over exactly what the school grades were measuring, but reported a general dissatisfaction with the entire system. When the professionals are confused about what school grades mean, how can parents be expected to make an informed choice?

How School Grades are Determined
Under the Florida education system, school grades are based on three major areas:

- the performance of the school as a whole on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in Reading, Math and Science at specific grade levels
- the improvement in grades of students in the school in Reading, Math and Science on the FCAT over the previous year
- the improvement of the lowest performing 25% of students in Reading, Math and Science in the FCAT over the previous year

In addition, in order to receive any grade above an F, 90% of the school’s students must take the FCAT. In order to receive an A, 95% of the students must take the FCAT. Schools receive points on a scale of 0-800 based on those factors, and are assigned a letter grade based on those points.

The system was originally instituted in 1999. In that year, 78 schools received a failing grade and another 600 received a D. Only 13% of the schools received an A rating. The state’s school grades overall have trended upward each year, with a couple of exceptions.

In the intervening years, the standards for receiving a passing grade have been changed three times, each time tightening the requirements to “raise the bar”. Each time that the standards have been tightened, the results were predictable – more schools failed than in the previous year and a percentage of schools found that their school grade had dropped from the year before. In nearly every case, those grades were recovered over the next year as teachers and students adjusted to the new material they were required to know.

The most recent adjustment to the grading system took place this year. For the first time in the 2006-2007 school year, the performance of students on the Science portion of the FCAT was taken into account in grading schools. Predictably, as has happened both other times that students had to meet higher standards, there are more schools than last year with F ratings, and a number of schools received lower grades than they did last year. If you take the comparative numbers against last year’s figures without adjusting for changes to the grading system, it certainly appears that the schools are losing ground in the fight to educate our children.

If you take a longer view, though, the picture is far different. In 1999, only 13% of all Florida schools received an A rating. In 2007, that figure increased to 52% - despite the fact that the standards are much higher than they were just eight years ago. In 1999, nearly 50% of all Florida schools received a C rating. This year, that figure is 17%. The percentage of D rated schools went from 24.5% to 8%. The only figure that has remained unchanged is the F rating – with approximately 3% of Florida schools receiving an F rating.

Even so, both parents and educators – and in many cases students – have serious concerns about the way that schools are graded, especially in light of the consequences of lower grades for schools. Many parents who have children in the lower graded schools are bewildered – they see that their children are being taught by teachers who care enough to work with them after school and push them to learn more. Teachers express concerns that they are forced to “teach the test instead of the children” – and in many cases to do so without the equipment and supplies necessary to teach effectively. These concerns aren’t unique to Florida. They mirror controversies and conversations that are being held in nearly every state across the nation.

Through all of this, though, two facts stand out. The first is that accountability is a vital part of the public education process. There must be some method of measuring whether the schools are doing their jobs of educating children. The system that we’re using now may be flawed, but it does provide an overview of a school’s progress toward improvement, and it allows for adjustment and improvement of the system itself to measure more accurately. It allows the state to pinpoint schools and regions that need assistance in meeting standards so that resources can be focused there.

The second fact is also undeniable. Since 1999, Florida schools have shown marked overall progress toward meeting the standards of education set forth by the state. Here in New Tampa, every one of the elementary schools received an A rating this year, despite the higher standards, and not a single school was rated an F.

While the current system may be flawed, it does provide a starting point for parents looking for school information. Parents who want a deeper look can access the school’s full report card at the FDOE’s web site, and use the time-honored methods that parents have always used to decide on a school for their children. Schedule an interview with the school principal. Talk with neighbors in the neighborhoods you’re considering. Learn about the schools on a personal level. The more involved you are in the process, the easier it becomes to make an informed choice about your children’s education.

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