Commissioner Stewart’s school grade simplification scheme may hurt strong students

Yesterday, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart told Governor Scott and a group of district school superintendents that the state’s school grading system should be simplified so that it has a “focus on learning gains”, according to the report in Gradebook.

The present high school grading scheme indeed includes several components in addition to learning gains measured by the state’s standardized tests.  Both AP participation and the number of passing scores on AP exams are included in high school grades.  Since Commissioner Stewart said she wants to focus on learning gains and the lowest-performing students, it seems likely that she will propose that the AP components be removed.

The AP components are far from perfect.  AP Environmental Science has replaced Honors Chemistry as a first high school science course for many strong students, particularly here in Leon County – and this is a very bad thing.  Many other students have been steered away from Honors Physics into AP Chemistry or AP Biology by guidance counselors and teachers who are incentivized to do so.  These students arrive at universities as science or engineering majors without any physics background.

However, the AP component in the school grading scheme is presently the only incentive there is for high schools to serve top quartile students.  Standardized tests based on the state’s standards or the Common Core are not meaningful for this group.

But cutting out incentives to serve the top quartile are consistent with the Commissioner’s stated goal of zeroing in on the lowest quartile that she reemphasized yesterday.

It seems appropriate here to restate my own philosophy on this subject:  The public schools should give every student the opportunity to achieve to the best of her or his own abilities, whether she or he is in the bottom quartile, the top quartile, or in between.  Zeroing in on one quartile at the expense of others is bad public policy and bad politics.

Update (Wednesday night, 9 pm):  Commissioner Stewart is making a presentation to the House Education Committee tomorrow morning at 9 am.  Her power point slide on “School Accountability Revisions” includes this:

“Re-focus the School Grading formula on student success measures

– Achievement

– Learning gains

– Graduation

• Include all students

• Ensure a focus on students who need the most support

• Avoid provisions that over-complicate the formula and muddle the meaning of a school grade (e.g., bonus factors, additional weighting, additional requirements, automatic adjustments, etc.)”

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