Report: Grading System Needs Redo; Education Group Wants to Reward Schools That Help Struggling Pupils Advance

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Byline: Denise Smith Amos

It's harder to coax students who are struggling academically to grow fast enough to catch up to their peers than it is to get typical students to pass minimum standards on state tests.

The first job is something urban schools often do well. The second job is what they struggle with but what most suburban schools easily achieve.

So says the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, an education policy and research group that Wednesday released its recommendations for Florida to revamp its nearly 15-year-old school grading system.

JPEF says that schools should get more credit for rapid academic growth among disadvantaged students and they should get fewer points for proficiency, which is Florida's definition for passing state tests. Currently, the report cards give equal weight to student growth and proficiency.

Florida's report cards are old enough to need an upgrade, said Trey Csar, president of JPEF.

"We have the oldest school grading system in the entire country," he said. "The system has had a good run, but it has reached the place where it's starting to show some signs of age."

For instance, he said, the system has been tweaked often - 16 times in the past three years alone. Even minor changes touch off major swings in school grades, he said.

In recent years, the state boosted the points needed to pass a state writing test, from 3 points to 3.5 points, but that caused big drops in some schools' state report card grades, Csar said. Similar problems prompted school and state leaders to put protections into the grading system so no school's grades could fall more than one letter a year, as schools adjust.

Florida's school accountability system creates annual report cards on schools and districts including grades, scores and rankings mostly based on how well students do on state tests. For high school and middle school, other factors are added, such as graduation rates and how many students take advanced classes.

The state is preparing to launch a new series of state tests next school year, based on more rigorous standards, and groups around the state are pushing their ideas for change.

JPEF's recommendations are one set among many under consideration, said Cheryl Etters, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.

"We're listening to everybody," she said.

For instance, last year a state group that represents superintendents and a governor's task force of business people, teachers, union representatives and others both made suggestions. JPEF's policy paper was sent to regional and state education officials.

Here are JPEF's ideas:

- Improve the way student growth is measured and reported, so more than one year's progress is considered. …