Most of the hub-bub at Tuesday's state board of education meeting focused on the adoption of the Common Core Curriculum, for which more than 70 people signed up to give public comment. However, the board also heard a presentation from Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who once again plans on amending Florida's bedeviled school grading system, which has been so ineffective and oft changed that it lacks even a hint of credibility. The idea that still more changes would be implemented at the very same time that the state will be phasing in both a new curriculum and a yet-unnamed replacement for the FCAT exam seems destined for disaster.
I'm not opposed to the idea that we need mechanisms for accountability in public schools and Stewart's proposals seem to make sense in terms of trying to make this system better. However, our efforts to compare apples to oranges in some sort of weighted system that seeks to view everything as an apple, have routinely failed. This has been acknowledged to such a degree that the state has routinely reverse-engineered whatever results the system has yielded in order to come up with something that varied and often competing interests – parents, teachers, principals, districts, school boards, taxpayers and unions – can agree on is a more accurate reflection of what is or isn't happening in individual schools.
In other words, we get the grades, gather complaints, and then issue new grades and/or a new grading system. As a result, the grades are not effective tools for comparing different schools across the state or evaluating the same school from one year to the next – which is ostensibly two of the system's primary purposes. However, the fact that they remain extremely important for other reasons – everything from school funding, professional careers, property values and student enrollment to a school being closed down or possibly even converted to a charter – makes their lack of credibility all the more distressing.
The new changes will seek to further "simplify" what had become a very-convoluted system, yet they would still base a large portion of their criteria on a standardized test that the state doesn't even have yet. The FCAT is set to expire at the end of this school year. Florida had been part of a 25-state partnership called the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College (PARCC) that were to develop new exams as part of Common Core. However, last summer Governor Scott followed Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford's advice to consider alternatives. In January, four testing companies and a non-profit submitted standardized test proposals to the state. PARCC wasn't one of them.
The state has yet to decide which of the tests will replace the FCAT, even though it will be using that replacement next school year. Given the disastrous experience of integrating the FCAT, I find little reason to believe we will experience anything remotely resembling a smooth transition no matter which replacement is chosen. At the very least, it would seem prudent to suspend the whole idea of grading schools during the transition.
There are many ways to evaluate the health and progress of a particular school or district from graduation rates and college matriculation, to attendance levels, AP participation/performance and grade-level reading. There are also metrics related to mitigating factors like the disparity in the performance of minority students, ESOL students and those living below the poverty line. Trying to come up with some sort of matrix that considers and to some degree weighs these different factors (along with many more) in order to provide fair and relevant A-F grades has not proven a manageable task so far.
While the state certainly should have a tool in which to hold districts accountable for the individual success of each school it administers, this approach doesn't seem to be it. Moreover, individual districts (including their citizens and boards) would seem much better positioned in terms of knowing their schools, their populations, strengths, challenges, etc., and therefore be best able to identify performance measurements and target goals similar to the ones the current system attempts to make uniform.
There are 67 very different school districts in Florida, each of which contain tremendous variation from school to school. There might be a way to set simple base metrics to easily evaluate whether certain critical benchmarks are being reached and to distinguish those that excel from those that lag, but we certainly don't seem to be in danger of discovering it. Given the challenges we're certain to face during the continued transition to Common Core – one of the most significant changes to the public education system in its entire history – a pause, rather than a reboot would seem to be in order.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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