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Untold Florida: How Do School And District Grades Align In Those Statewide Reports?

Trying to understand Florida’s school ranking system is no easy task. It involves a complex formula spelled in a 40-page document to explain how the numbers arrive at a ranking.

A WUFT listener named Lenny from Gainesville wanted to know how Alachua County Schools can be “A” rated but have an average on test scores that basically is in the middle statewide.

“This seems to be a discrepancy. I guess I was riding my bike last year, and I saw on some schools that the county is ranked as an “A” school,” he said. “And I know that although they have their limits, standardized test scores, for many grades are average at best.”

The answer: Test scores are only one piece of the puzzle.

The Florida Department of Education lists the school grading formula, which consists of five measures: achievement, learning gains, graduation, acceleration success, and maintaining a focus on students who need the most support.

Jackie Johnson, spokesperson for the School Board of Alachua County, said that when the State of Florida grades school systems they grade the whole district as if it is one giant school.

“You definitely have a moving target when you’re talking about school and district grading and really the entire accountability system,” Johnson said.

In Alachua County, the significant increase in graduation rates, increase in test scores for lowest performers, robust career tech programs, advanced courses (AP, IB or Cambridge) and dual enrollment program have contributed to Alachua County’s 2018-2019 “A” grade, Johnson said.

Due to COVID-19, school grades for the 2019-2020 school year remained the same as the previous year.

The grading system in both schools and districts have a number of different factors and criteria. The criteria changes depending on the grade level. The grading system also changes frequently.

“Whenever the standards change, you have to change the test to reflect the new standards. The passing level changes, the number of tests included will change, the format of the test will change and the grading formula itself changes,” Johnson said.

Standardized test scores, which are one component of the grade, are used in several ways. They look at overall scores, the lowest performers, learning gains for all students and learning gains for the lowest performing 25% of students.

At the middle school level, the state looks at how many students earned an industry certification through a career technology program and how many students took a high school level course such as Algebra 1 and took the end-of-course exams for that course.

Beyond test scores, graduation rates are also included in the formula. The state looks at what they call college and career acceleration, which means the percentage of graduates who took and passed a test in an advanced course, like advanced placement, Cambridge or International Baccalaureate, or took and passed a dual enrollment course, or earned an industry certification.

The state assigns points to each of those criteria and the number of criteria varies depending on whether you are talking about an elementary or middle or high school, Johnson said.

Carmen Ward, Alachua County Education Association President, said if schools are “A” rated, there is recognition money for teachers. But if schools don’t have a good grade, there is a lot of scrutiny.

“A lot of it is based on things that are out of control of the school, like attendance. The school can only do so much,” she said. “There is community responsibility in there as well and parent responsibility in making sure students attend schools.”

In response to talks of impending COVID-19 education budget cuts, Ward says the first thing that needs to go is standardized testing.

“We are paying a fortune in progress monitoring and the actual testing companies are profiting a fortune,” she said. “We need to cut back there because it is something that does not help our students. It does not help our schools, and it does not help our teachers.”

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Sarah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.