State Board Members,
Due to a scheduled committee meeting with my Board, I am unable to attend today’s State Board Meeting where the Commissioner plans to outline the proposed changes to the school grading system. As a result, I want to take the time to express my deep concerns with the proposed changes. Please note that I have addressed these previously with the Commissioner and with Deputy Commissioner Juan Copa. I present this letter not to represent the interests and opinions of other superintendents or organizations but to represent my community and those children who have properly benefited from a sensible accountability system that is now being dismantled at the high school level. It is my responsibility as Jacksonville’s educational leader to restore balance to a weakening accountability system.
Let me begin by stating that I support the need to simplify the grading system by removing triggers and bonus points. These changes will provide much needed transparency to the public with a clear denominator and numerator system to calculate school grades without the misunderstood clauses that increase and decrease school grades. However, based on my Florida experience with serving our most at risk students as a principal, state administrator, district administrator, and superintendent, I believe the currently proposed changes at the high school level reverses our state’s progress with advancing a “college going” culture among all of our schools and students, especially those from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds.
A state accountability system must hold all adults responsible for the betterment of the children and communities they serve; what is measured gets done. In any complex environment with limited resources and competing interests, the metrics defined in the accountability structure shifts the strategic plan to focus on those targets. Obviously, in the context of education, these targets cannot be shallow incentives to placate resistant stakeholders to reform but instead should challenge low expectations and faulty systems to produce meaningful results for ALL children. The current high school accountability system has accomplished this goal by holding districts and high schools responsible to college readiness scores in reading and mathematics; an at risk graduation rate; and acceleration criteria for participation. These areas are recommended for removal today despite the fact that they have transformed the lives of thousands of children. Please find an explanation of each below:
· Removal of the College Readiness (Reading and Mathematics):
These current accountability cells hold districts and high schools accountable to ensuring that their high school graduates are college ready as defined by the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT), American College Testing (ACT), and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The college readiness standard eliminates the requirement for freshman to take a college remediation class in reading or mathematics. Based on personal experience in Florida at multiple administrative levels, I can testify that these accountability measures have expanded the high school experience to one that is a bridge to college. Students who normally do not consider college as a real option are encouraged (and sometimes pushed with tough love) to take the ACT/SAT where only a few years ago they did not. Schools now offer PERT/ACT/SAT classes, bus students to take the exams, and educate parents on their importance. For students who have struggled on state assessments, the ACT/SAT provides average students with the vehicle to transcend their experience and aspire to something they were not previously exposed to. The ACT/SAT is an opportunity for college scholarships and more importantly college exploration. High school students in Florida, not only those who come from more privileged backgrounds, now talk to one another in a competitive way about being “college ready in reading but not math”. This is the type of positive cultural change that has occurred in some of our previously lowest performing schools throughout the state only because the accountability system motivated organizations to focus on a clearer set of child-centric priorities that also resonated with young adults. Why would we remove this criteria from how we measure success at the high school level, especially when we attempt to make the high school diploma more meaningful and rigorous? Why would we remove this metric when the focus of the new standards is college ready standards? Is that not best defined through national exams such as the ACT/SAT?
· Removal of the At Risk Graduation Rate:
The intent of at risk graduation metric was to hold districts and schools accountable to ensuring that ALL of their students graduated in four years, namely those who entered high school below grade level in reading and mathematics. Why would we remove this measure? This was specifically added to ensure that the lowest performing students were provided the additional intervention to graduate, even from traditionally high performing schools that routinely received “A” and “B” letter grades while achievement gaps continued.
· Removal of Acceleration Participation:
The current recommendation to include only performance and remove participation in the acceleration area will serve as a disincentive to high schools to place average performing students in Advanced Placement (AP), Dual Enrollment (DE), Industry Certification, Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE), and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Schools are likely to place only those students who are near certain to pass the exam or course into accelerated courses to ensure that points are maximized. The proposed change will have a devastating impact on continuing the work to provide greater access to accelerated coursework to disadvantaged and minority students. The “diploma to nowhere” was directly addressed in the previous changes to high school grading to ensure that Florida high schools would provide students with a springboard to college, a career, and life. Accelerated courses provide that opportunity. Concerns regarding diluted acceleration options are somewhat valid based on the current grading system. Yet, proper rules and enforcement can be established to ensure students take the exam or receive a grade if they are enrolled in the course after a date certain; similar to a “drop” date for leaving a college class. Additionally, every student enrolled in an accelerated course after a defined date should be added to the performance dominator, students taking multiple acceleration courses should each be counted once instead of a weighted amount. The participation and performance denominator should, at the minimum, be no lower than all juniors and seniors at the high school.
The additional benefit of maintaining each of these four areas is the continuity, acceptance, and sustainability of the current high school grading framework. The Department and the State Board will continue to lose credibility with stakeholders with significant changes to the current system. Instead, refinement is needed. Build off the current system. When I have attended national meetings and various states and districts ask how we are able to create a strong “college going” cultures at our high schools, I immediately refer to the state’s accountability structure that holds us all responsible for developing that atmosphere. By removing the four areas mentioned above, we will revert to a flawed high school accountability model that lacks the vision for student achievement beyond state assessments. The high school experience should be more than state assessments but clear metrics linked to life after high school.
Aside from the deep concerns with the proposed changes to high school grades, the current proposed changes to all school grades do not capture the opportunity to evolve from one that continues to compare one set of students to another set unjustly. In other words, comparing last year’s sixth graders to this year’s sixth graders is an outdated accountability model. Instead, as the Jacksonville Public Education Fund study suggested
we should hold ourselves accountable to ensuring that cohorts of children improve annually while emphasizing continual growth each year. This reinforces the need to have quality teachers at every grade level and subject area while holding entire feeder patterns accountable to improvement.
I would also be remised if I did not add that the current proposal does not clearly return our state to a better position regarding the performance of English Language Learners being measured for proficiency after two years of schooling, instead of one. All research indicates that such an approach discriminates against newly arrived students. Lastly, we must recognize our Special Diploma students as graduates, not as drop outs as the current four-year graduation rate establishes.
I trust that you will consider this analysis closely. As many of you know, I am willing to assist you in any way to improve our accountability system. Despite reservations at times, I have supported Florida’s accountability system over the years, even enforcing it among various districts throughout the state as Deputy Chancellor when doing so was not popular. I did that because I believed children benefited from those higher expectations. I remain one of the only superintendents in the state who supports the one year transition to new standards and assessments while having an evaluation tool where 50% of my performance is based on student achievement as is the case for our teachers statewide.
Today, based on the current proposals, I believe we would be taking a step backwards on behalf of the students who need us most. Accountability matters, but defining the right areas to produce life changing results for children should be our focus.
Sincerely, Nikolai P. Vitti, Ed.D. Superintendent of Schools