Just hitting minimums won't cut it

Jun 15, 2006

Dan Gelber

School grades were released Wednesday, and like a traditional rite of spring, Gov. Jeb Bush declared that all things are terrific in Florida public schools.

More schools have reached "A and "B" and fewer schools are rated "F". Never mind that Florida's high school graduation rate is ranked dead last of the 50 states, or that few states spend less on public education. If your school got an "A," don't worry, be happy.

My own children attend an "A" school, the same public elementary school I attended. You might think I would be content and even thrilled that our school always gets an "A." Not so. You see, I know what the "A" really represents and why Florida's grading system is totally irrelevant, if not destructive, to my child's education.

In Florida, a school receives its grade based primarily on only one factor: how many of its children score at minimal competence on the state FCAT test in two subjects. By law, almost nothing else figures into the calculation of what grade a school receives other than a writing score, which is a minor portion of the grade.

So it doesn't matter whether children know civics or science, or whether a school is providing terrific bilingual, gifted or enrichment programs. You don't even get extra points for moving students to more than just passing.

Because schools are branded successes or failures by the grading system, administrators and teachers must become obsessed with devoting resources to get kids to pass the subjects tested. Get more kids in your school to minimal competence in those subjects and the governor might show up to hold a press conference to declare your school a success. Enrichment and advanced programs are becoming more scarce because they drain resources.

Music, art and culture are frills. Physical education? Forget about it. Teaching to the test is a way of life.

Perhaps this is why earlier this month the respected Washington-based nonprofit Fordham Institute singled out Florida as one of the very worst states in the nation in teaching history.

To be fair, reaching passing is an adequate goal for some children. But under the governor's grading scheme, minimal competence is no longer a goal of our school system—it is the only goal. How many parents have the singular goal of sending their children to school to just pass two subjects?

The numbers don't even bear out that our efforts have improved anything. For two consecutive years, the U.S. Department of Education ranked Florida's high school graduation rate dead last of the 50 states. Even the state's single-minded commitment to mediocrity has had mixed results. Elementary kids seem to be passing more, while middle and high school kids have flat-lined or lost ground.

Florida could craft an accountability system that measures more of the things that matter. Don't just grade schools on performance in two subjects, but lots of them, including civics, literature, science, advanced math, and social studies. Evaluate high schools on how well they graduate their students and place them into colleges. And give schools credit for not merely students that pass, but also those that excel.

These are the kinds of factors any parents would want to know about, and if they were the ingredients of a school's grade, administrators and teachers would be rewarded and not penalized for paying attention to them.

Of course, if you graded on all these factors the shortcomings of public schools would become obvious. So, rather than demand that underfunded schools perform in all the ways that matter, our state found it easier to dumb down expectations and simply declare success when you've reached the low-water mark.

We should demand accountability, but we should measure true performance and not promote mediocrity at the expense of real achievement.

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