We are mere days away from a joltingly early start to the new school year, but instead of looking ahead to new supplies that speak of fresh challenges, our gaze has been diverted to an unexpectedly worrisome past.
Results of the Florida Standards Assessments rolled out last month, and, well, yikes.
All of a sudden, your neighborhood A school, or your B school you were absolutely certain was on the rise, is, according to the latest report, backsliding.
Of the 79 Pasco schools for which the state reported grades (four received scores of incomplete), 36 slipped at least one grade. The number of A schools shrank by half, to 14 from 28. Overall, Pasco’s district grade slid from a B to a C.
Those looking for good news will find little, but there is this: The number of schools receiving an F dipped to two from three. So there’s that.
Understandably, the generally glum news triggered general apoplexy. In a carefully worded press release, Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning nodded to “very challenging times” as a result of “the transition to new standards.”
“New standards” is the key phrase, and about them retiring state Sen. John Legg (R-Trinity), who oversaw the K-12 committee that drafted the perplexing grading scheme, says: Calm down.
Naturally, that’s easier said than done when everything from state education funds to property values to neighborhood and personal prestige are riding on the local school’s grade. As Legg readily concedes, “Everybody wants to go to an A school.”
I mean, Pine View Elementary, which never scored below a B and last year earned an A, suddenly merits a C? And Seven Oaks Elementary, the very principal’s honor roll of grade schools, dips to a B? The tiger moms of Land O’ Lakes and Wesley Chapel cannot be amused.
And still the senator says: Chill. Here’s how Legg, who’s also an administrator at Dayspring Academy, a pre-K-11 Pasco County charter school, lays it out: Schools that dropped a grade or even three did not necessarily change from being good or even excellent to something else entirely.
The reason, instead, is the new and — fingers seriously crossed here — improved grading system, one that doesn’t simply weigh student performance against an absolute standard, but, in an attempt to weed out socioeconomic variables, also grades year-over-year improvement.
Legg likens the new grading plan to a baseball game.
“We saw a lot of schools [from wealthier communities] decline because, basically, they started on third base, and they didn’t get the runner home,” Legg says. “Then you have a school like Lacoochee [Elementary], where the kids come to the plate with two strikes. If teachers can figure out how to get them on base, they deserve points for that.”
Balancing the achievement of schools that bang out gimme RBIs against those that teach the difficult art of reaching first is at the heart of the educational Sabermetrics that inspired the performance-plus-improvement measuring sticks.
To elaborate, schools that draw well-to-do students might hit high marks time and again. While they took home plaudits for their natural advantage, it was an open question whether they were increasing the quality of their students’ learning year-over-year.
Conversely, schools with high populations of free and reduced-lunch students might not score as high academically in any given year as their richer cousins, but if they close the grade-level gap — if their students rise from two years behind to one year behind — that’s a clear indicator that something good is happening.
Earlier grading systems did not account for stagnation or improvement, or for rich-school/poor-school disparities, as top administrators and teachers’ union chiefs alike routinely complained.
The new assessments reflect an imperfect attempt to level the playing field. Accordingly, there is likely to be, at the very least, short-term pain while administrators and teachers probe the maze in search of happier outcomes.
This, of course, assumes such probing is possible. Browning is clearly skeptical, and other administrators have called the new system “complicated and confusing.”
For his part, Legg prefers to think of the new plan as detailed and precise, declaring himself confident the infusion of “additional variables” to the education equation “provides a more accurate description of what’s going on” in each school.
This must have been what the preeminent baseball stat-cruncher Bill James — inventor of Sabermetrics — must have felt like when he discovered his landmark “runs created” stat.
To be clear: The results from 2014-15 set the baseline. The results from 2015-16 are the first to measure year-over-year improvement. That, Legg contends, is “why we saw a variety of directions.” Next year’s reports will provide “an even stronger” indicator of what’s going on within each school, just as year-over-year sales reports indicate how individual stores are faring against history.
This is good stuff to know. And, it’s why Legg pushes back against trashing the A-F grading system.
“If we didn’t have school grades, we couldn’t even ask these questions,” Legg says. “They wouldn’t know what’s happening.
“Take away school grades and we’d go straight back to the ’90s, when kids were graduating from high school and couldn’t read their diplomas. We’d go looking for what went wrong, and there’d be nothing there to figure it out.”
Another session of aggregating data — also known as the school year — looms dead ahead. Here’s hoping everyone involved greets the challenges ahead with perfectly fitted thinking caps.
Because, the work of academic achievement is not for sissies.
Published August 3, 2016