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Differing Rules Blur Schools' Ratings

Most Brevard County public schools failed to meet federal standards for improvement under President Bush's No Child Left Behind.

Many of those same schools, though, got a top grade under his brother's "A+ Plan" for education in Florida.

A lot of people -- including some state officials -- don't think that makes sense, so they're considering changing the rules.

School districts and school boards have fought for the changes to reduce confusion among parents about whether their children's schools are doing a good job. Some also fear Florida's economic development could suffer if outsiders perceive the state's schools as failing.

By Friday, Commissioner of Education John Winn is expected to propose adjustments to the way schools are measured by federal law, which will be submitted for approval by the U.S. Education Department.

"We're not asking to lower our standards but to see how we can better align No Child Left Behind with Florida's A+ Plan," said Vivian Myrtetus, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education in Tallahassee.

Each state sets its own standards for complying with the law, which requires schools to make "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, while working toward proficiency for all students by 2014.

Florida took pride in setting high standards, but the small number of schools meeting them made it appear to be one of the lowest-achieving states in the country.

Last year, only 17 Brevard schools made adequate progress, not including charter schools. Statewide, 68 percent of schools received A or B grades from the state, but just 23 percent made AYP -- the worst in the nation.

"When the standards reflect that 86 percent of schools in Mississippi and only 23 percent in Florida made adequate progress, there's a total distortion," said Richard DiPatri, superintendent of the Brevard School District.

Meeting targets

The state grades and the federal standards are based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores.

But while the state system grades schools on overall performance and learning gains, the federal law requires students in eight subgroups to meet specific proficiency targets in math and reading. At least 95 percent of students in each subgroup must be tested, and progress in writing and graduation rates also are measured.

The subgroups make it possible to compare achievement by race, students with disabilities, low-income students and limited English speakers.

If any one subgroup falls short of the targets each year, schools fail to make adequate progress. In Brevard, 23 schools missed by just one subgroup, such as disabled students falling short in math, or not enough economically disadvantaged students being tested.

Schools serving large low-income populations feel the impact most. If they fall short of federal standards two years in a row, they must offer families the choice to transfer to schools that did meet the standards. After three years, they must pay for outside tutoring services. And after four years, more drastic "corrective action" may be required.

The Brevard School District must set aside 20 percent of the federal Title I funds it receives to support 32 such schools -- expected to be about $2 million next year.

Formula changes?

Gov. Jeb Bush and Winn have discussed possible amendments to the federal formula with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. They include:

# Subgroup size: In Florida, scores are counted if there are at least 30 students in a subgroup. Other states have bigger subgroups so that one small number of students missing proficiency targets -- those with disabilities, for example -- doesn't make an entire school fail the federal standard.

A change proposed by district superintendents would make subgroups represent at least 15 percent of their class to be counted.

# Proficiency targets: This year, the percentage of students that must pass reading and math tests jumps at least 15 percent, to 48 percent and 53 percent respectively.

The state could seek to slow that rate of progress and try to make up the difference in later years.

# Learning gains: Even if a subgroup fails to meet proficiency targets, schools could get a break if enough students in that group showed significant learning gains.

Different rules

If no changes are made, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents predicts nine out of 10 schools will fail to make AYP.

Several parents picking up their children from spring break day care center at Turner Elementary in Palm Bay this week said they were familiar with the state grading system, but knew little about the federal standards.

For the past two years, Turner has been an A school but failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, missing by one subgroup last year.

"That's like Mom setting one rule for the kids and Dad setting another," parent Sonja Stroble said. "They should have the same standards."

Parent Renee Jacobs said she liked Turner, regardless of how the school is graded, and doesn't like the state or federal governments placing so much emphasis on the FCAT.

"Trying to make the grade and to make the statistics better is putting too much pressure on our students, parents and teachers," she said. "There has to be another way."

Contact Dean at 242-3617 or jdean@flatoday.net

— James Dean
Florida Today


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