The Florida Department of Education released its preliminary school grades for elementary and middle schools late last month. Seven of the schools in Alachua County received a grade of A, down from 21 last year. Similar results are reported statewide, with the number of A-rated schools down by 39 percent, according to information from the Department of Education.

The difference in scores was predicted by state officials, due to a change in the way the schools are evaluated. The threshold for passing the FCAT writing test was changed from 3.0 to 3.5.

“What we have in this state is a constantly moving target,” said Jackie Johnson, public information officer for the Alachua County public school system. “We have a grading formula that has been changed more than 30 times in the last two years.”

This year, seven schools got an A, 17 received a B, six had a C, five had a D and four had an F. Only five schools, Alachua Elementary, Newberry Elementary, Caring and Sharing Learning School, Waldo Community School and Metcalfe Elementary improved their grade. Only Caring and Sharing rose by more than one letter grade, going from an F to a B.

The performance of Alachua County’s schools could have been worse if the board of education didn’t pass a safety net early last month, Johnson said. The safety net prevents a school from falling more than one letter grade per year.

Unlike the FCAT reading and math exams, schools cannot pass or fail a student based on the writing exam. Only the school is evaluated, not the student, Johnson said.

Had the writing requirement not changed, the results this year would have been largely the same as last year, she said.

Controversy surrounds the validity of holding teachers accountable by using constantly changing standards. Tony Bennett, commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, resigned last Thursday following accusations that he manipulated the formula for school grades for political reasons at his previous job in Indiana, equivalent to his job in Florida.

“That affects the credibility of the grading system if it can be changed for political reasons like that,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing to raise expectations for students, but it’s another thing to arbitrarily change the formula.”

Emails from Bennett uncovered by the Associated Press indicate he may have tweaked the grading formula in Indiana when a charter school run by a political donor was facing a grade of C.

“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote Sept. 12, 2012. Bennett and his colleagues went on to discuss how to change the formula so the school would get an A.

The school grades aren’t just for bragging rights, there is bonus funding for higher grade levels.

The Alachua County School Board and the superintendent have voiced their concerns about the grading system to state leaders, but their criticisms have fallen on deaf ears, said Alachua Superintendent Dan Boyd.

“I think it’s a deplorable situation,” Boyd said. The state should compare the performance of Florida students to that of students in the same grade across the county, rather than comparing them year-to-year in the same state, he said.  

In the wake of Tony Bennett’s resignation from the Department of Education, nobody from that department was able to comment on why the formula for calculating school grades changes frequently, or how the grades are decided.

Governor Rick Scott released a statement showing his support for the decisions and contributions of Bennett, saying “Florida’s educational system continues to make incredible gains.”

Boyd said until schools across the nation have a common denominator, the students in the state will be the victim of constantly inflating statistical analysis. That common denominator might come in the form of the Common Core standards, which aims to make education consistent across the states by instituting common standards for the curriculums. As of January of this year, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards, including Florida.

Despite how the statistics look, Boyd said he is confident the students in the county are performing well.

“I think the children are learning in spite of what the pundits in Tallahassee prescribe,” he said. “The teachers do a good job in the schools and they are working hard.”

#     #    

Email cmckinney@