There is a debate about the validity of school grades. There are reasons to think twice about releasing the 2015 results. School grade formulas change regularly, so it is difficult to know whether the grading formula, the characteristics of the student body, and/or statewide test results have the greatest impact on a school grade. The school grade formula will change again this year. In addition, the grading system has a new set of challenges.
What will happen with the new school grade system that calculates achievement gains based on scores from two different tests: FCAT and FSA? Even if the passing standard is equated to ensure the same percentage of students pass, it does not mean that students are proficient on the new standards. It means that school grades will move around until the DOE matches the items with the standards as suggested in the FSA validity study.
I looked at Palm Beach’s school grades over the last five years. Grades in most schools shift from one year to the next. This cannot be due to changes in instruction! Then, I looked at how grades were calculated. Therein ‘lies the rub’.
In the past, school grades were calculated in various ways by converting achievement gains and proficiency levels percentages for math, ELA, and writing into a numeric scale and adding points for students whose gains in achievement were higher than expected. High school grades also included other data e.g. graduation rate etc. Achievement and gain scores for ELL and ESE students were calculated differently in 2011-12. The reality was that, try as they might, the Florida DOE could not find a fair way to grade schools, so every year or so the method changed.
The Florida Department of Education proposed a ‘simpler’ formula in 2014. When 2015 grades are released, these are the grade components for all students:
- Percentage of students passing ELA (including writing), Math, and Science
- Percentage of students making learning gains
- Percentage of students in the lowest 25% who make a year’s gain in learning
School grades for middle school will also include the percentage of students passing the statewide civics test and other mandatory EOC exams and CAPE certification tests.
High schools will add in the percentage of students passing the End of Course U. S. History test, the graduation rate, and the percentages of students who earn college and career credit through AP, IB, dual enrollment, certifications etc.
Will this simpler approach be more fair? It gets rid of the numeric scale and just adds percentages. Percentages jump around in small schools because a few students can cause large differences in scores. There is also the possibility that schools with the same achievement gains might not receive the same school grade. See an example here. A school with high numbers passing the FSA and showing achievement gains, may not have many ‘at risk’ students. These schools must include students who had also been counted in the first two categories just to fill out the bottom 25% of scores. They would be able to double count some of the same students i.e. those showing gains but were also in the bottom 25% of their school’s score range. The ‘at risk’ school’s lowest 25% would likely not include students who had been counted in the first two groups. Therefore, they would earn fewer points even though their students improved at the same rate.
Of course, at risk schools will have a lower percentage of students achieving proficiency even though their students may gain a year in achievement. If a student starts out two years behind in kindergarten, they can improve at the same rate as others but not meet proficiency in third grade. Is the school failing, or is something wrong with the system?
Now with the new FSA results about to be released, the reliability of school grades will again be under scrutiny. If school grades are to reflect student achievement rather than the idiosyncrasies of a particular formula for calculating the grade, some problems have yet to be solved. The FSA item classifications have to be corrected. Items that do not match standards will impact performance levels. Item complexity that does not correctly reflect a level of performance will impact whether or not students earn proficiency. Added to these concerns are those reviewed above–schools with the same rate of achievement which may receive different grades because their students enter school without learning readiness skills and cannot make up the skills quickly enough. The children who start out ahead, stay ahead.
The legislature has ample reason to be cautious about releasing grades before a thorough investigation of the impact of the grades on schools. We do not need another fiasco.