New A-F school grading system OK’d amid more infighting

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The State Board of Education approved a new A-F grading system for schools on Thursday, despite the state superintendent’s concerns that the rules have mistakes or ambiguities that will make implementing them difficult.

The revamped system is designed to put more emphasis on student improvement – rather than simply overall achievement. That’s so schools heavy with at-risk students can earn higher grades if student test scores or graduation rates improve but still fall below state averages or passing marks.

“This rule reflects the overwhelming desire of teachers and administrators to give equal weight to student performance and growth in the state’s new A-F model,” board member Gordon Hendry said in a statement after the 8-1 vote.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat elected in 2012, helped craft the changes and voted for them.

But board members quashed her attempts to make last minute changes in the rules. Ritz said the amendments were simply attempts to clarify the language so that educators and Department of Education officials would know precisely how to calculate school grades.

“This is the most important rule we have out there affecting schools,” Ritz said. “This rule has been nebulous before and we have been operating under it. I don’t want to operate under anything that’s not clear to the field or to the department. We have to field the questions. We have to calculate the grades.”

But board members said they’d received the proposed changes less than two days earlier and had not had time to review them. The board’s attorney also warned that the changes could delay the rule’s implementation.

The discussion about the changes – another tense battle that pitted Ritz against several members of the board – lasted more than an hour. And in the end, the members never allowed Ritz to present or discuss the amendments.

Instead, they agreed to consider any technical changes through a fast-tracked rule-making process later. More substantive changes would go through a longer process that involves public hearings.

The infighting came just hours before Pence signed a bill into law that overhauls the board, starting on July 1. The legislation takes away two of Pence’s 10 appointments and gives them to legislative leaders. And it removes the superintendent as the automatic chair of the board – but not until after Ritz finishes her current term.

That means a new board could be in place when Ritz proposes her changes again.

The new A-F system replaces one that has caused fits for the board as it tried to calculate grades for schools with non-traditional configurations or such small enrollments that trends are tough to detect. The new system tries to take into account how many newer schools are organized.

In general, grades for elementary and middle schools will be calculated based on achievement and improvement on standardized tests – with each counting as 50 percent.

Only 20 percent of the grades for high schools will be calculated based on standardized test scores. The remaining 80 percent comes from other factors, including graduation rates and advanced placement test results.

Board member Andrea Neal, the lone vote against the new system, argued the state is putting too much emphasis on test results for the elementary and middle school grades. She said the state must find additional factors to consider or schools will continue to teach to the tests and deemphasize subjects or issues that aren’t included.

“My concern is that the A-F formula as constituted will further restrict and further narrow curriculum,” Neal said.

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