Most people with school-age children are aware that the Florida Department of Education recently released school grades (the A–F grade provided to each school). It has become too easy to place a lot of emphasis on these school grades.

After all, the stakes are high. Schools can be closed or turned over to a management company if they receive a low grade for repeated years, wreaking havoc on the community.

If your school’s grade is not what you expected, you may be wondering how you can help or why the grade does not match you or your child’s experience at that school. It’s important to understand how our school experience is being measured and evaluated through these grades.

The Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) was launched by the state in 2015 to replace its predecessor (the FCAT) in math and English language arts. The FCAT is still used in subjects such as writing, science and civics. The state also administers end-of-course exams in high school Algebra 1 and Geometry (also considered to be part of the FSA).

Yearly testing is mandated by the federal government in grades 3–10. The FSA, the test selected by the Florida Department of Education, consists mainly of standardized, multiple-choice questions. Parents, teachers, students and administrators do not see the questions or the responses. Students receive a score of 1–5, with 3 being considered proficient in the subject tested.

Many people question whether the FSA is a valid measurement of student achievement, as issues such as mobility, social environment or illness can impact a student’s ability to perform well on the tests.

School grades are calculated using 11 categories:

• Four student achievement categories, which measure the percentage of students who receive a passing score on the FSA/FCAT in English language arts, math, science and social studies.

• Four learning gains categories, which measure the percentage of students whose scores on the FSA increased from the prior year in English language arts and math, with an additional component for the 25% lowest-performing students (effectively counting those students twice).

• One middle school acceleration category, based on the percentage of eligible students who passed a high school level assessment or achieved an industry certification.

• One high school/college and career acceleration category, measured by the percentage of graduates who earn a predetermined score on an advanced placement test, are enrolled in a dual enrollment course or earn an industry certification.

• One graduation rate category, which measures the percent of students who graduate within four years.

School grades are then calculated by adding together the number of points earned and dividing it by the number of points available from each category. The state develops the scale by which these percentages equate to each grade (A–F), and also establishes the grading formula (which has changed multiple times since inception).

Elementary school grades are based on the first eight categories, thus making their grades 100% dependent upon FSA/FCAT scores. Middle school grades include the middle school acceleration category, and high school grades include all categories; however, the majority of those grades are based on the FSA.

There are many things that matter to families more than standardized test scores — school climate, high quality-certified teachers, diversity and access to the arts, for example. None of these components are included in a school grade, therefore making it just a small glimpse into what a school is about.

School grades have a profound effect on communities. They impact the way people feel about their school. They have been known to affect real estate values. A low grade can tarnish a school’s reputation in the community, and identify it for additional scrutiny (and some assistance) from the state and federal government.

Just as one test score does not define a student, a school grade does not define a school. We owe it to our children, and our schools, to learn more about what every school has to offer and consider more authentic measurements of success.

Alachua County Council of PTAs and Florida PTA advocate for an accountability system that utilizes more meaningful measurements. Currently, the Florida PTA is collaborating with the Department of Education through a grant to improve and make the district and school report cards more user-friendly and accessible (more details in a future column).

 

Megan Hendricks is legislative chair for the Alachua County Council of PTAs. This is part one in a series of columns about Florida’s public school accountability system.