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Senate panel supports push to simplify school grades

The Senate Education Committee got right to work Tuesday morning, approving a proposal that would simplify the oft-criticized school grading formula.

The bill looks similar to recommendations made last month by state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. It eliminates the bonus points schools can earn, as well as the so-called triggers that automatically cause a school grade to drop. It also removes several factors from the complex formula used to evaluate high schools, including five-year graduation rates and some college readiness measures.

Schools would continue to receive A-F grades during the transition to a new formula. But there would be no consequences for poor performance in the first year.

The education committee made two tweaks to Stewart's original recommendations. They added a provision that would give middle schools credit for participation and performance in high-school classes. They also added language that would exempt children with complex disabilities from state testing, in response to recent discussions about the plight of profoundly disabled children.

Explained Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland: "This amendment would say that if a doctor and a superintendent recommend it would be best for a child not to take assessments, they can have either a one-year waiver or, if they have a complex medical issue, a permanent waiver."

Education Committee Chairman John Legg refused to hear a late-filed amendment by Sen. Bill Montford that sought to add certain indicators of college readiness back into the high-school grading formula.

Legg said Montford's amendment was too complicated to take up without advanced notice.

The panel approved the proposed committee bill by a 5-1 vote.

"I do think this gets us back to the basics," said Legg, R-Trinity. "It gets us back to the purpose of a simple, transparent process where we can communicate what is going on in the school to the parents. This is not the end product, but I think it's a step in the right direction."

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, cast the lone vote against the proposal.

"At the end of the day, you can put a new coat of paint on a '72 Pinto, but it doesn't make me want to buy it," Bullard said. "I still don't support the bill or the school grading formula."

The proposal will now be routed to other committees for consideration.

Patricia Levesque, of the Foundation for Florida's Future, said she was pleased to see a simplified formula. "We urge you continue to move down this path," she said.

But a handful of superintendents reiterated their call for a three-year transition to a new education accountability system.

Bay County Superintendent William Husfelt brought up the fact that the education department had yet to choose the statewide assessment that will be used next year. 

"We are playing a game right now, saying we think this plane can land, but it's not even in the air yet," Husfelt said.

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford asked for a moratorium on school grades until the accountability system is complete and "understood by everyone."

“You must cease rushing to grade for grading's sake, or else the purpose is lost,” he said.

Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made the case against oversimplifying the high-school formula.

"If you remove college readiness for reading, college readiness for math and acceleration participation, those numbers will go backwards... " Vitti said. "If you don't include the participating indicator, there is no incentive to make sure that kids who are on the fringes academically, mainly those kids who are minority and those who are poor, take those classes."