Florida's controversial school grading system will be put on ice for a year under a bill passed Wednesday. The new bill comes after a tumultuous few months that saw the education commissioner resign and critics take aim at the grading system and new testing standards.
The move to overhaul the grading system was backed by Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and is being made as the state transitions to a new test replacing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or FCAT. The Florida House passed the bill by a 76-42 vote.
A key portion of the bill (SB 1672) would ensure that schools wouldn't receive sanctions or penalties as a result of school grades issued in 2015. That's because the state plans to use the first year of the new test as a baseline to measure schools.
"This is a common-sense approach to our accountability system," said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, one of the sponsors.
School superintendents had suggested putting the grading system on hold for three years to give more time for school districts to get used to the new test, which will be based primarily on Common Core State Standards.
Democratic legislators tried unsuccessfully to adhere to this request, but their efforts were defeated earlier this week by House Republicans. Consequently, Democrats voted against the bill Wednesday.
"We are going to hurt the children by pushing the grades forward without knowing what's going on," said Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa.
Florida first instituted the A-to-F grading system 15 years ago under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Over the years, the grading formula, which has largely been centered on FCAT scores, has been changed and altered to take in different categories for high schools and to measure learning gains of those students who scored at the bottom of the test.
But recent changes to the standards created complaints and confusion. The state was forced to enact a safety-net provision that prevented school grades from dropping more than one letter grade a year. Florida's previous education commissioner, Tony Bennett, resigned last summer following allegations that when he was commissioner in Indiana he changed the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor.
Gov. Rick Scott convened a schools summit in August during which he asked education officials and others to discuss possible changes to the grading system.
The changes approved by legislators would base school grades for elementary and middle schools primarily on standardized tests given in English language arts, math, science and social studies. High school grades would take into account graduation rates and the percentage of students eligible to earn college and career credit.
"The changes to school grades ensure we are focused on measuring and improving the factors that are most critical to preparing Florida's students for success in college, career and life," said Stewart in a statement.
Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, and a public school teacher, criticized the bill because it would continue to have the state rely on what she called the "test-obsessed genie of reform."
"We are simply trading a one-trick pony for a three-ring circus," Castor Dentel said.