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The vise tightens as school grade standards get tougher

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By Jenna McKenna

New Levy County Schools Assistant Superintendent Gina Tovine is already hip-deep in addressing the greatest challenges affecting area schools. Tovine spoke at Tuesday’s school board meeting, giving an update on Florida Schools Accountability policy.

Florida Department of Education recently released school grades, and the news was mostly good. District-wide, there has been steady improvement, with Levy County gaining steadily in points each year and earning a grade of “B” again this year.

Further good news, as described by Superintendent Robert Hastings, is that the wide disparity between elementary and middle school achievement and high school achievement is narrowing, following a statewide trend.

The bad news is that, under the terms of No Child Left Behind, accountability for schools, particularly high schools, is ratcheting up so heavily that even high schools that do well in most FCAT areas are failing to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), and are seeing their school grades fall.

One of the main sticking points for high-scoring schools that fail to make AYP is the AYP standard that requires 68 percent of all students to score at or above grade level in reading and math. Schools consistently have trouble enabling economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities to score at or above grade level.

Tovine said that starting next year, school grade scoring will have differentiated accountability, using the merging of two accountability systems. The two systems are meant to get schools back on track, with different strategies meant to address the schools’ particular combination of school grade and AYP status.

The differentiated accountability categories are “Prevent,” for schools whose grade or AYP status is near-satisfactory, “Correct,” for schools with either very unsatisfactory school grades or AYP status and “Intervene,” for schools that consistently earn failing grades. Schools that earn high grades and make AYP will not have to use differentiated accountability.

New legislation will also change the way high schools are held accountable for students’ learning, with 50 percent of the school grade based existing FCAT factors and 50 percent based on other factors such as graduation rates of normal and at-risk students, performance in accelerated courses such as AP or dual enrollment and postsecondary readiness as measured by SAT, ACT or CPT.

The FCAT factors governing high school grades are already known, Tovine said. Students earning scores of 3 and above on the four FCAT tests, plus the percent overall making learning gains, plus the percent of the lowest quartile students making learning gains, add up to a maximum score of 800.

The second half of the scoring metric involves schools’ achievement in the graduation, acceleration and readiness categories.

Tovine said that two important factors will impact the graduation rate metric – the requirement that 75 percent of at-risk students must graduate, and that students receiving GEDs will no longer count toward a school’s graduation total. Because at-risk students are the ones most likely to withdraw from school and then, as a best case, earn GEDs, those rules in combination make it urgent for schools to pursue early identification and intervention of struggling students using RTI (Response to Intervention) teachers.

The accelerated coursework metric is also a complication, because of the difficulty in offering a broad variety of such classes in county schools. Director of Administration Jeff Edison, in his report on the district’s investigation into agreements with Florida Virtual Schools, said that in addition to existing solutions of dual enrollment and AP classes at some schools, students in schools not offering a certain AP class may be able to take it in a virtual class from a different Levy County school that does offer it. Williston High School Principal John Lott said this option was highly desirable because it will help students in Levy County high schools compete more strongly for college admissions and scholarships against students in school districts with a broader range of advanced classes.

In the accelerated metric, schools will receiver credit for the number of all ninth through twelfth graders who take accelerated classes, compared to all eleventh and twelfth graders enrolled. They will receive bonus points for students successfully completing accelerated coursework.

As with the FCAT categories, the non-FCAT scores also add up to a possible 800 points, putting school scores on a scale of 1,600 possible points. Those 1,600 points will be hard to get. Tovine explained that in a simulation using next year’s scores and metrics against this year’s achievements, about 20 percent of “A” high schools statewide would fall to a “B” grade.

“Just looking now at how next year’s standards will impact our schools, this is huge,” she said.