When one of Florida's staunchest defenders of school accountability says the state needs to throw out its formula for grading schools, lawmakers should pay attention. The state Board of Education on Tuesday narrowly approved another round of changes to the A+ Plan school grading formula to ensure that no school's 2012-13 grade drops by more than one letter grade this year from last. But the decision came about only after a surreal discussion that suggested more allegiance to a bureaucratic construct than real accountability. The best hope now is that lawmakers and education officials will do a better job as they build a new accountability formula starting in 2014-15 based on Common Core State Standards exams.
It would have been unthinkable a few years ago for Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa, a former chief of staff to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, to say the A+ system had become invalid. But that's what she said Tuesday, suggesting the state would be better off just not giving grades for a year as the board considered for a second time delaying the impact of tougher FCAT passage scores. "We've overcomplicated the model, and I don't think it's a statistically valid model" anymore, she said.
But four of the other six board members embraced new Education Commissioner Tony Bennett's recommendation to tweak the formula once again to ensure that no school's grade dropped precipitously. Some of the state's most respected superintendents had warned that the ratchetting up of FCAT passage scores threatened to penalize even schools that were seeing improvements in student performance. In other words, their grades could have dropped even as their scores rose.
Bennett rejected Shanahan's suggestion that the state just take a year off from issuing grades, saying state law required them. Then he added, apparently not meaning to be ironic: "I believe as a purist on accountability that taking a break from accountability is very simply bad policy," Bennett said.
That sentiment is only valid if the accountability is actually transparent and consistent, something no one in Tallahassee even tries to argue anymore. So school grades that will be released this month may have little correlation to reality. Unfortunately, they will have real impacts on each school's funding and teacher bonuses.
The school grading system needs some accountability of its own. Until the state comes up with a meaningful, rational system of school grades, an A won't be an A, and the system itself will continue to earn a failing grade. You could give it an F.