Latest state school rankings stir up controversy

Filed under DAYTONA BEACH

BY THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

The St. John’s County school system (St. Augustine) is No. 1 in a newly publicized education ranking from the Florida Department of Education.

It’s been an “A”-rated district for eight years. Meanwhile the Leon County school system, which includes Tallahassee, has also been an “A” district for the same amount of time. However, it is at No. 24 on the state’s measuring scale.

Some of the poorest districts, like Gadsden (Quincy, just west of Tallahassee), Franklin (Apalachicola, on the Panhandle), DeSoto (Arcadia, west of Lake Okeechobee) Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison (all just east of Tallahassee), are at the very bottom of the list.

Is it fair?
The state on Monday released a ranking scale that rates school districts from highest to lowest. But the rankings are coming under fire from school district superintendents who say it’s not a fair way to look at how well students are doing.

Okaloosa County School Superintendent Alexis Tibbetts said she’s concerned about the message the new rankings may send, especially for the districts at the bottom end of the scale.

Those counties tend to be poorer, or have a greater numbers of disabled and non-White students, or those for whom English is a second language. Some of them have all of those factors. She cites studies done by the federal government over the last decade as a part of the “No Child Left Behind” system, which classifies groups of students into subgroups.

Based on FCAT
The numerical ranking is based on a district’s total points on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), the standardized test all Florida public school students take. Districts are awarded one point for each percent of students who score on grade level or higher on the FCAT and make annual learning gains, according to the department.

The total is the sum of the percent of students scoring at Level 3 or higher for FCAT Reading, Mathematics, and Science; scoring at Level 4 or higher on the FCAT Writing essay; the percent of students who made learning gains in reading and mathematics; and the percent of the students in the lowest quartile who made learning gains in reading and math, a measurement intended to measure how the district is doing in helping its worst students improve.

Rich and poor
Many of the districts at the top – St. Johns, Santa Rosa (east of Pensacola), Martin (north of Fort Pierce) and Sarasota (south of St. Petersburg) counties, the top four – all have large numbers of students who are socioeconomically fairly well off.

Near the bottom end is Jefferson County, which has a history of both financial and academic problems. Two years ago it was running a financial deficit and paychecks were bouncing. It was also an F-rated district according to the state. But in the last few years, it has gotten its finances in order, boosted its test scores and moved its district grade to a C.

It established science and math-based career academies at its schools to get more students certified in fields like nursing and ready to enter the workforce. It also has more than 130 disabled students out of a total school population of 1,029. It’s ranked as number 66 out of 67 counties in the state for education performance.

Not ‘bottom districts’
Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson acknowledges that some school districts have serious social and economic factors that weigh heavily on their ability to perform.

“…In no way are we saying that they are the bottom districts,” Robinson said about the lowest-performing districts in a pre-taped video posted to the Department of Education’s website. “What we’ll do now is see how districts will move from year to year…and have a conversation about what we can do as citizens to support our public school system and support reform and innovation across the area.”

In a conference call with reporters, Robinson added, “What I’d hate to do is people try to use poverty and socio-economic status alone as a reason why these students can’t achieve. That would go against 10 years’ worth of work that Florida’s put in place to take our subgroups and move them higher.”

The top 5 districts under the ranking: St. Johns; Santa Rosa; Martin (south of Fort Pierce); Sarasota and Gilchrist (west of Gainesville).

For the full list, go to www.flcourier.com.

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