To parents: Is your child’s “A” school really excellent? And why are D and F schools so rare?

By: - July 26, 2018 8:00 am

Florida Department of Education

When the Florida Department of Education last month released A through F grades for public schools, 93 percent got As, Bs and Cs, with about a third of schools posting coveted A grades in 2017-18.

Adding in the very few Ds and Fs, Florida’s picture of school performance appears lopsided — not like what parents might remember as the common bell curve teachers use to grade tests and papers.

Florida DOE spokeswoman Audrey Walden said the formula to judge schools isn’t calculated by a curve. And the small number of D and F grades indicates that schools struggling the most are getting intense state help to boost performance, she said.

But nearly 20 years after Florida launched A through F grades as an easy way to let families and the public know how schools are doing, questions remain about whether the calculations may make public schools look better than they are, state data show. And does a one-time school grade reflect the breadth of performance at a school?

Angie Gallo is vice president for educational development at the Florida PTA. When asked about the school grades used to judge schools, she said, “We have a position statement on it. We don’t like them.”

Of chief concern, she said, is that school grades are based in large part on how well students do on state-required exams.

 “We don’t believe in high-stakes testing. It shouldn’t be the be all and end all,” Gallo said.

Overall, “We just feel that school is so much more than a grade and the way they calculate them isn’t a really good picture.”

For last school year, the state gave out these A to F grades for 3,250 schools, with percentages rounded up: 32 percent got As; 26 percent got Bs, 36 percent got Cs, 6 percent got Ds and 1 percent got Fs. (Also, 81 other schools got Is, for incomplete.)

A grade of A, of course, is going to stand out.

In Naples-based Collier County public schools, Supt. Kamela Patton said that for the first time since school grades were launched in Florida in 1999, all of her schools got an A, B or C. No Ds or Fs.

“We’re very proud of that,” she said.

In all, the Collier district posted grades of A (27 schools); B (14 schools), and C (12 schools), state data show. (One school got an incomplete).  That means half the schools in the district got As, a tough task.

Of 67 Florida school districts in the state, only 10 districts saw half of their schools post A grades: Baker, Collier, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Monroe, Nassau, Okaloosa, St. Johns, Sarasota and Wakulla.

Patton attributed the high grades for district schools on a variety of factors, from teachers who are committed and principals who are the best leaders for a school.  Support from families and community members is crucial, and use of academic data helps chart student progress throughout the school year.

At the same time, “We do not spend our entire time focused on only academic grades (from the state).” The district is strong in fine arts and music and other programs that don’t get included in the state’s calculations of letter grades to judge schools, she said.

As to state exams, Patton said, “I think most people think there’s a lot of testing. So do we.”

Nonetheless, how well kids do on state tests is a big part of the equation when schools are judged.

The state’s formula includes the percent of students passing state exams in English language arts, math, science and social studies.

But passing the math and ELA exams, for example, is easier than parents and students may think because the state allows kids to pass even if they are not what’s considered proficient on an exam, state data show.

Students can pass with a performance level of 3 out of 5 categories. A Level 3 is described by the state board of education as “satisfactory,” and states that a student “may need additional support for the next grade/course.

A Level 4 means students are proficient —  “likely to excel in the next grade/course and a Level 5 is the top performance called “mastery” – “highly likely to excel in the next grade/course.”

All of this is significant because the percent of students “passing” those math and ELA exams gets rolled into the formula to judge schools by letter grades. That means even at an “A” school, not all students will be proficient or higher – which parents may not know.

Christy Hovanetz is a senior policy fellow for the nonprofit foundation ExcelinEd, focusing on school accountability policies such as the A to F grade model used to judge schools in Florida. She worked at the Florida Department of Education at the time the state launched the A to F model under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

Hovanetz remembers the early days of A to F grades. “We got piles and piles of questions, people happy, people upset, people who just didn’t know what to make of it.”

Getting an A grade at a public school is still considered meaningful, Hovanetz said, and the A to F model has evolved, expanding across the country. Fifteen states now using it, she said.

Florida’s calculations for school grades also include “learning gains” — meaning improvements in state test performance;  4-year graduation rates, and the percent of graduates who get certain scores on rigorous courses such as Advanced Placement classes.

Hovanetz gives this advice to parents:  Look at your child’s local tests given at school, review their report cards, pay attention to the input from teacher conferences, and more.

“Parents shouldn’t be looking exclusively at a school grade.”

For more information about how school grades are calculated, go to the Florida Department of Education’s link:

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.