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Education commissioner Tony Bennett recommends changes to school grading system

By on July 14, 2013
Tony Bennett

Education Commissioner Tony Bennett will ask the State Board of Education next week to prevent schools from dropping by more than one letter grade on the state report card in an effort to counter what superintendents say could be an alarming drop in grades, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Bennett’s recommendations, to be taken up at a specially called meeting Tuesday, are seen as an effort to avoid another botched rollout of the school grades after last year’s release became a public-relations headache for the Department of Education.

Bennett’s predecessor, Gerard Robinson, resigned a short time later, though Robinson said he was leaving to spend more time with his family.

The limit on any drop in school grades was one of the key recommendations that local superintendents offered Bennett during discussions last week. It would continue a policy started last year during the grades controversy. The superintendents say that some of the data they’re getting back as they do the initial calculations for the report cards this year seem to be off — but they don’t know why.

Part of the problem, they say, is that the state has implemented 13 changes this year alone to the accountability system for schools — making it harder to meet the standards and harder to figure out what’s going wrong. Concerns about that complexity also hover over the state’s efforts to put in place the “Common Core State Standards,” which are based on national guidelines.

In a letter to state board members explaining his thinking, Bennett took pains to distance the school-grades proposal from any idea that it would water down the state’s accountability system.

“To be clear, my recommendations, outlined below, are made not to soften the blow of higher standards or to reduce the number of failing schools, but rather to advance the best policy for Florida’s students and position our state for a successful transition to full implementation of the CCSS (Common Core State Standards) in the 2014-2015 school year and beyond,” he wrote.

Bennett also recommended not including the scores of students at so-called “ESE centers,” which teach students with disabilities, in the grades of the schools they might otherwise attend. Currently, those students’ scores would count for the “home school” if the ESE center chooses to receive an alternative rating instead of a school grade.

But because grades are set to be released soon, Bennett said any changes to this year’s grades under that recommendation should be handled retroactively through an appeals process.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he saw the changes recommended by Bennett as a “good, reasonable response.” Montford, who also serves as the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, took part in last week’s discussions.

“Clearly, I think this is a fair approach to it,” Montford said.

Montford said he was encouraged that Bennett was keeping the common core system in mind as he considered the changes.

Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who helped spearhead the drive for tweaking this year’s grades, was measured in his praise of the recommendations.

“We support the commissioner’s recommendations, especially the continuation of the temporary safety net that prevents schools from dropping more than one grade letter in a given year,” Carvalho said. “It is our hope, however, that the Florida Board of Education will consider polling districts for the ESE Center choice (rating or grading) prior to the release of school grades; otherwise, they will be branded as failing, and have to appeal.”

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