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Floridians Should Ask a Few Questions About the Manhattan Institute

Maybe parents and educators should stop asking about the difference between an A and B and ask instead why Jay Greene at the Manhattan Institute is giving the grades.

It's hard to know what constitutes an A school these days.

At Pine Grove Elementary in Delray Beach, only half the students were proficient in reading and math last year. The school got an A.

At Palm Springs Elementary in Coral Springs and Sunrise Park Elementary, west of Boca Raton, more than three-quarters of the students aced reading and math. Both got Bs.

The case is the same at B-rated Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach, where 71 percent of the students performed well in reading, and almost all the students aced math and writing. But at A-rated Nova High School in Davie and Wellington High School, only about half the students met state requirements in reading.

"It's very misleading to parents," Suncoast Principal Kay Carnes said. "Our student performance is high. It's the grading thing that's not right."

Parents often look at a school's rating when they decide in which neighborhood to locate. Teachers get bonus money if the school gets an A or improves a letter grade. A high grade also is a selling point for new teachers. But it's now more confusing than ever to understand what it takes to become an A. Maybe it means your students are doing well, or maybe it means they're improving but still struggling.

The state's A-Plus plan, which assigns letter grades to schools based on scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, has been controversial since its inception in 1999. But now it's facing growing criticism that it's too easy on some traditionally low-performing schools, while imposing "gotcha" rules that penalize higher performing schools.

Some of Palm Beach County's highest performing schools got Bs, the same grade given to many schools where half the students weren't proficient in reading.

Adding to the confusion is the federal government's No Child Left Behind law, which measures how well students educate different demographic groups. Under the federal law, only 20 schools in the Palm Beach County District have shown adequate progress from the previous year. Suncoast and Sunrise Park were among that group, even though the state views them as B-rated schools.

"I think the entire grading system is so flawed, it should be scrapped," said Shelley Vana, a state representative who also serves as president of the Palm Beach County teacher's union.

Others say the state system may not be perfect, but it's a fair system that gives all schools a chance to get an A, regardless of the types of students that are being served.

"Any sensible grading system has to make a balance between rewarding schools for the level of student achievement they produce as well as for improvement," said Jay Greene, senior fellow with the conservative Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office in Davie. "The grade we're giving to the school is based on the difference the schools make in children's lives."

When the state grading scale first started, the majority of students taking the FCAT had to be proficient in reading, writing and math to get a grade higher than a D. In 1999, there were only 16 A schools in the Palm Beach County School District, and they were all predictable. They were schools like Addison Mizner and Del Prado elementary schools in Boca Raton, which served upper middle class students and had gifted programs. Most high poverty schools got Ds or Fs.

Many complained it wasn't fair to compare schools with affluent students and educational advantages to schools whose students are from high-poverty neighborhoods. If a school can make dramatic gains in student achievement, it should get a high grade, said advocates of the lower-performing schools.

So the state revamped the formula before last year's grades. Half of a school grade now is based on how many students improved their performance from last year."The learning gains was a very critical piece," said Anne Dilgen, director of assessment for Broward County Schools. "It gives much more dimension to a school grade."

This year, 40 percent of schools in Broward County and 46 percent in Palm Beach County are A-rated.

Former D schools in high poverty areas, such as Pine Grove and Belvedere Elementary in West Palm Beach, vaulted to A rankings this year, largely because they were given credit for improvement. They also had strong writing scores.

Last year, two-thirds of Pine Grove's students improved in reading and 88 percent improved in math. In addition, 61 percent of the lowest achieving students improved. Perhaps that's an achievement that deserves an A, Vana said.

"That Pine Grove could move children a lot says that the school's moving in the right direction," Vana said. "But are we grading kids? Or are we grading teachers? What do we mean when we say what is an A or a B? Everyone has a different idea."

Nuances in the scoring system make grades all the more confusing.

Schools are able to earn up to 600 points. A score of 410 or higher is an A. But that wasn't the case for such B-rated Suncoast (464), Sunrise Park (461) and Broward's Palm Springs (463). These schools suffered from what educators refer to as the "gotcha" category.

The lowest performing students must improve at a rate that's no more than 10 percent less than the rate of all students, or an otherwise A-rated schools gets a B. So if 75 percent of all students improve, 65 percent of the lowest achieving students must also improve."It's definitely an odd system," said Robin Lynch, who has two children at Sunrise Park. "Most of our kids improved, but we got a B because of this loophole. It doesn't seem fair."

But this isn't a loophole, said Francis Marine, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Education. It's a way to ensure that schools don't coast to a high grade just by showing improvement among higher achieving students.

"It's an incentive for schools to work with the lowest performing students," she said. "It's easier for students that are struggling less to make improvements. By having this rule in place, it lets schools know the bulk of their resources should go to students who need the most help."

Barry Rothman, an agent with Boca Raton-based Lang Realty, said he discourages parents from using school grades to determine whether a school is good or not.

"I do not believe that the grades are designed to be a stamp that says `this is a good school. This is a bad school,' " said Rothman, who has a second-grader at Sunrise Park. "It's only meant to say `this school has met certain standards.' "

— Scott Travis
Florida's school grades often mislead parents on student performance
August 12, 2003


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