Critics question increasingly rosy picture painted by school grades.
Real estate agents, teachers’ spouses, homebuilders and parents joined educators this week in perusing the school grades released by the Florida Department of Education.
The annual grading of schools sends ripple effects throughout the state, impacting home values, teacher bonuses, the value of land and where parents opt to send their children to school.
This year’s results reflect a growing trend. More schools and districts are earning A’s, while the percentage of students passing the state tests is not increasing as dramatically. Schools with fewer than half of their students passing state tests can earn a B. Twelve elementary schools went down in math, science and reading but saw their school grades improve.
The sunny results have the DOE praising Florida’s education system. But critics are increasingly questioning a system awarding grades that don’t seem to align with reality.
Manatee County School Board member Charlie Kennedy pointed out that since he joined the board in 2014, there has been an 800% increase in the number of districts earning an A, from three in 2014 to 24 this year.
“If you were a testing company and you saw grades rising this dramatically, I think you would go back and look at your test,” Kennedy said. “Where is the validity of the system?”
Points over proficiency
While the grading system is intended to simplify, the numbers going into the grade are anything but simple. Noneducators know what an ‘A’ or ‘F’ means, but schools that brag about their ability to “produce learning gains in the bottom quartile” are likely to be met with blank stares.
“We just look at the grades,” said Southwest Florida developer Pat Neal, who tries not to build homes on land near schools earning a C or lower. “How they are established is beyond my comprehension.”
Statewide, eight districts earned a B with half or fewer of their students passing the reading test. At Manatee Elementary School, two-thirds of the students did not pass the state reading and science tests, and fewer than half could pass the state math test. The school earned a B.
Low pass rates aren’t necessarily indicated by a low grade, as the state places strong emphasis on “learning gains” and the performance of the children in the bottom 25% of their class.
Students in the bottom 25% can count up to three times as much as their peers, incentivizing teachers and administrators to focus heavily on them. A student in the bottom quartile who failed the tests the previous year but is just on the cusp of passing could be a points bonanza for a school.
“There is an incentive to focus on those kids because you are rewarded three times over for your effort, and I think that is intentional,” said Sarasota County Superintendent Todd Bowden.
Without awarding points for improvement, elementary schools in poor neighborhoods or with many non-English speaking students would likely never have a shot at an A or B, former Sarasota superintendent Lori White said.
“You want all schools to feel that those A’s are possible,” said White. “It motivates families and teachers and administrators to strive because it is very possible rather than have a system where they feel the deck is stacked against them.”
Bank account impacts
But critics of the grading system say the current methodology prioritizes the public perception of schools rather than the academic performance of students. Schools can rack up points and earn high marks for making incremental improvements, even if students never pass state tests.
Sue Kingery Woltanski, a Monroe County School Board member and critic of the school grading system on her “Accountabaloney” blog, said the A-through-F methodology leaves parents lacking information.
“The things that parents might use to decide whether a school is good or not is not reflected in the school grade at all,” Kingery Woltanski said. “The way you would pick a private school — class size, extracurriculars, not, ‘Does the bottom quartile make learning gains?’”
Kingery Woltanski said the high stakes attached to the test can incentivize administrators to steer resources toward one student while steering them away from others. She discovered schools where students who were not going to be tested because of when they arrived at the school not being invited to participate in Saturday remediation sessions.
One former Manatee County administrator said staff at her school put blue star stickers on students’ desks so all teachers and aides would be reminded to ensure those students were engaged in learning. She said a DOE official told her to disregard students who just arrived in the United States, since their test scores would not count during their first year in the system.
“I had a state person tell me, ‘If the kid just got here off the boat and you know he is not going to count for your grade, you don’t want to ignore him, but you want to ignore him,’” the administrator said.
Students leaving elementary school who do not pass the test require remediation when they get to middle school. That means even A and B elementary schools are passing along large swaths of students who will hit middle school and be limited in how many electives they can take because those extra periods are spent in math or reading remediation.
That policy, in part, inspired parents and staff to vote for Lincoln Memorial Middle School to convert to a charter last year. Eddie Hundley, who was principal at the time, said he was tired of receiving classes full of sixth-graders who grew to hate school because they had to spend elective time in remediation, and arts and athletics were no longer an option for them.
Teachers’ bank accounts are impacted by the grades as well. The state annually distributes millions in recognition funding to schools that earn an A, improve one letter grade or sustain improvement a year after advancing a letter grade. Last year, Sarasota received $2.6 million, which was distributed to all but nine of Sarasota’s schools. Teachers vote on how the money is distributed, and most opt to take it as a bonus, union officials say.