May 21, 2018
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School grades will lead to higher student achievement

By F. Philip Handy and T. Willard Fair, Special to the BDN

By adopting an A–F school grading system, Maine has taken an important step to improve public education in the state. As former chairmen of Florida’s State Board of Education, we can say with confidence that the growing pains involved with setting higher expectations were worth the positive results to student achievement.

In 1998, nearly half of Florida’s fourth graders were reading more than a grade level behind Maine students on national comparisons. Back then, Florida would have been better off giving Maine advice on snow removal than education policy.

But what a difference a decade and a half makes. Today, Florida’s fourth graders outscore Maine on the same national comparisons. A simple and transparent method of grading schools revolutionized an education system that languished in educational apathy for far too long.

For years, Florida’s leaders were content to blame our outcomes on challenging demographics: 43.6 and 45 percent of all Florida students, respectively, are low-income or minority (43 and 8 percent in Maine), and the state has a large number of students for whom English is a second language. Others blamed it on Florida’s consistent place at the bottom quartile for funding, spending more than $3,000 less per student than Maine.

These themes should sound familiar: They’re the same excuses used in states across the country to preserve the status quo. Indeed, these are the very same conversations taking place in Maine right now.

But in the late-90s, leaders in Florida shook their complacency and implemented reforms based on the core belief that all children can learn when schools are organized around the singular goal of learning.

The statewide program of grading schools on an A-F scale — just like students — became the flagship reform. Its role in Florida’s improvement cannot be overstated. Educators and parents intuitively understood that an F represents failure and that a C is not as good as a B. We found that every school strives to earn an A in a way you don’t see when schools are given vague and confusing labels, like “satisfactory” or “performing,” that are pervasive in education.

Just like Maine, grades in Florida are based on the learning that takes place within school walls. Half of the grade is based on the percentage of students performing on grade level. To reward progress and discourage stagnation, the other half is dedicated to learning gains, with particular attention given to gains made by the lowest performing 25 percent of students and improvement. This important policy — which Maine has adopted — rewards both achievement and progress.

When Florida first implemented school grades, there were more D and F schools than A and B schools. After the brief period of panic, communities came together to improve. School officials restructured, ineffective teachers were let go, the business community and media started to take interest, and a funny thing happened: Parents started to get involved with their children’s schools. Parents who got involved saw their school grade improve and decided to stay involved. Today, even after raising standards multiple times, there are 10 times as many A and B schools.

The state also started rewarding success and providing additional resources where needed. We gave high performing schools more autonomy, repurposed existing money to reward schools that earned an A or improved a letter grade, and provided customized assistance to help improve the lowest-performing schools.

Today, Florida has the fourth largest gains nationally in reading and math for African-American students, the third largest for low-income students and the largest gains for students with disabilities. We’ve closed racial and economic achievement gaps faster than the national average every year for a decade. Fourth graders in Florida are now reading better than every tested country in the world except Hong Kong. Our Hispanic students outperform the average student in 21 states. Graduation rates, national rankings and achievement on Advanced Placement courses all continue to rise. According to Harvard researchers, Florida has overall learning gains that are second best in the nation while Maine ranks 49th.

Instead of accepting excuses for poor performance, we reshaped Florida’s education system by setting high expectations and, in the process, proving that a student’s demography is not their destiny. By empowering communities with transparent information about the state of education, Maine can do the same.

F. Philip Handy served as chairman (2000-2006) of the Florida State Board of Education when A-F grades were implemented in Florida under Gov. Jeb Bush. He is a member of the board of directors of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami, sat on the Florida State Board of Education from 2003-2011, serving four years as its chair.

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