Since I am quick to criticize the media for its role in the failures of the current education reform movement—such as PBS, The Charleston Post and Courier, and Education Week—I must also recognize when a media outlet provides much needed insight into education policy that has clearly run off the tracks, such as the so-called Florida miracle and the enduring practice of assigning letter grades to schools.
In "Low-income schools struggle under state's grading system" (Miami Herald, August 10, 2013), Michael Vasquez and David Smiley offer a clear but disturbing picture of accountability in Florida:
With dozens of changes in just the past three years, the formula behind Florida's A-to-F school grading system has been criticized as a confusing mess. But there's been at least one constant in Miami-Dade and Broward results: The wealthiest schools never get Fs, and schools with high populations of poor students face an uphill battle to even get a C.Vasquez and Smiley, along with the Miami Herald, represent a needed aspect of journalism addressing education reform: Recognizing large and compelling patterns, and thus the consequences of education policy.
The trend is visible through a decade-plus of school grade results, dating back to the first grades issued in 1999.
The analysis of assigning letter grades to schools in Florida exposes some important conclusions:
• Although high poverty rates don't necessarily doom a school to a subpar grade, D and F schools are overwhelmingly serving students from poor neighborhoods, and the few schools that do overcome poverty to achieve an A are outliers. (There were nine such schools this year, all in Miami-Dade).Despite efforts to identify educational quality among schools by focusing on growth models, data used in accountability policies remain primarily a reflection of out-of-school factors. Further, the schools that sit outside the typical patterns are rightfully identified by Vasquez and Smiley as "outliers."
• Of the 209 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward with at least 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, 78 percent received a grade of C or worse. Roughly 39 percent of these high-poverty schools received a D or F.
• Of the 43 local schools with much lower poverty rates (30 percent or fewer students receiving free or reduced lunch), 86 percent received an A, and none received a D or F.
This analytical report on letter grades for schools in Florida is a strong example of quality journalism that seeks out and presents complex and detailed evidence, placing that data in the broader context of the many factors that impact not only the evidence we gather on our schools but also what conclusions we draw as well as how we draw those conclusions.
In the article, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho explains, "'Just as much as poverty can't be an excuse, the exclusion of poverty as a factor is immoral.'"
Rare is the news article that allows a perspective this complex.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) ushered in several grand promises in 2001, such as closing the achievement gap, but one of the central requirements of the legislationâthe use of scientifically based researchâis now poised to dismantle the entire accountability movement, including policies such as labeling schools with letter grades based primarily on test scores.
The evidence is clear that thirty years of accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing has failed. The next step is composing and sharing a unified message of that fact, while also building a coalition to reset the reform agenda so that we address poverty, equity, and opportunity in the lives of children and their families as well as in the schools those children attend.
The Unintended Lessons from Florida
After recognizing the excellent analysis by Michael Vasquez and David Smiley of Florida's school grades being strongly correlated with out-of-school factors associated with the students*, I have received several important related points from Vasquez about the unintended lessons coming from one of the most often cited reform states in the U.S.
First, Vasquez pointed me to Matthew DiCarlo's What Florida's School Grades Measure, And What They Don't, in which DiCarlo explains:
A while back, I argued that Florida's school grading system, due mostly to its choice of measures, does a poor job of gauging school performance per se. The short version is that the ratings are, to a degree unsurpassed by most other states' systems, driven by absolute performance measures (how highly students score), rather than growth (whether students make progress). Since more advantaged students tend to score more highly on tests when they enter the school system, schools are largely being judged not on the quality of instruction they provide, but rather on the characteristics of the students they serve.The really important aspect of DiCarlo's analysis is that Florida's accountability system has likely caused harmed instead of attaining the lofty goals often associated with accountability policies, as DiCarlo concludes:
New results were released a couple of weeks ago. This was highly anticipated, as the state had made controversial changes to the system, most notably the inclusion of non-native English speakers and special education students, which officials claimed they did to increase standards and expectations. In a limited sense, that's true grades were, on average, lower this year. The problem is that the system uses the same measures as before (including a growth component that is largely redundant with proficiency). All that has changed is the students that are included in them. Thus, to whatever degree the system now reflects higher expectations, it is still for outcomes that schools mostly cannot control.
In other words, there are many Florida schools with lower-performing students that are actually very effective in accelerating student performance (at least insofar as tests can measure it). This particular ratings system, however, is so heavily driven by absolute performance—how highly students score, rather than how much progress they have made—that it really cannot detect much of this variation.Both Vasquez and Smiley's 2013 analysis and DiCarlo's 2012 analysis, however, are even more troubling in light of a St. Petersburg Times (Florida) March 21, 1999, article, "A lesson in grading schools," by Kent Fischer and Geoff Dougherty:
Closing or reconstituting these schools is misguided policy; their replacements are unlikely to do better and are very likely to do worse. Yet this is what will happen if such decisions are made based on the stateâs ratings.
Florida will have to do a lot more than make tweaks to truly improve the high-stakes utility of this system. In the meantime, one can only hope that state and district officials exercise discretion in how it is applied.
Bush believes the grades, A through F, will make it easier for parents to compare schools and assess how they are doing. A noble goal.Fourteen years ago, then, Fischer and Dougherty accurately identified the flawed Florida school grading plan, but also acknowledged the key ignored hurdle facing education, poverty:
But a St. Petersburg Times analysis indicates his school-grading system may be fundamentally flawed.
It takes no account of the impact poverty has on student achievement, though many studies have proven that children from wealthy families generally outscore children whose parents are poor. So Bush's grades are more apt to reflect the relative wealth of a school's student body rather than the competency of its teachers, the newspaper's analysis shows.
If there's one thing that has been firmly established by research, it is the impact social factors have on student achievement. This does not mean poor kids can't achieve. Many do. But poor children often lead transient lives, may suffer from malnutrition and endure higher rates of abuse and neglect than other children. They also tend not to be exposed to books, music and other cultural influences that help ready young minds for school.Ultimately, Fischer and Dougherty offered Florida parents a message still relevant today: "There's more to a school than good test scores. When trying to gauge school quality, educators suggest parents do some investigating."
Research - and the Times' analysis - shows that when large numbers of students are considered, poverty reliably predicts test scores. The Times' analysis found that depending on which test is given, from 69 to 79 percent of the difference in test scores among schools is explained by poverty.
That seems to ignore several significant demographic factors, like single-parent homes and student mobility. But many of those factors have an extremely high correlation to poverty and thus are effectively included in the analysis.
The bottom line, according to many experts: Any grading system that fails to take poverty into account is flawed.
* See below a graphic (click to open and then click again to enlarge) related to Vasquez and Smiley's article they were unable to include in the online article: