School Grade Modifications and the ESEA Waiver

1.  Why are there so many changes and why are they happening so quickly?

A.  Florida was one of the first states in the country to begin grading schools based on student achievement. As our expectations of what students should be learning during their years in school evolved along with our ability to evaluate performance, Florida continued to raise the bar to ensure that our students get the best education. Changes included moving from Sunshine State Standards and the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) to Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and FCAT 2.0.

In 2002 the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that provides funding for K-12 education. No Child Left Behind established national educational standards. Having to comply with two separate school accountability systems with different standards and timelines has resulted in duplication and confusion. Florida has been granted an ESEA flexibility waiver so we can have a single accountability system tailored to our state.  Transitioning from two systems to one poses short term challenges and deadlines, but should mean a more efficient system over the long term and, most importantly, higher-quality education for all of our students.

2.  Why did Florida request an ESEA flexibility waiver?

A.  Florida requested a flexibility waiver in order to

  • eliminate multiple layers of regulation by moving to a single, simplified accountability system;
  • reduce confusion caused by having several separate accountability systems;
  • make the way schools are held accountable for student achievement easier to understand;
  • improve student achievement by holding school districts and schools accountable for the performance of all students;
  • better align resources with needs by accurately identifying schools that need intensive intervention;
  • allow the state and school districts to focus support on students who need them most;
  • raise standards to boost national and international competitiveness; and
  • strengthen the state’s ability to tailor its program to meet Florida’s unique educational needs.

3.  Will this change require a change in the assessment a student with disabilities takes?

A.  No. They will continue to take the assessment that they have been taking. If they have been taking the Florida Alternative Assessment (FAA) they will continue to take that. If they have been taking the FCAT they will continue to take that.

4.  Is Florida doing away with the Florida Alternative Assessment?

A.  No. The proposed rule does not eliminate the Florida Alternative Assessment, nor does it mandate that children for whom the FAA is appropriate be given the FCAT.  The ESEA flexibility waiver given to Florida by the US Department of Education requires that the performance of students with disabilities on the appropriate assessment (FCAT or FAA) be fully included in Florida’s accountability system to ensure that they receive the attention that they deserve. The department is currently working to determine how best to implement the ESEA flexibility waiver within Florida’s existing accountability systems. 

5.  Will Florida schools still have to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals?

A.  No. Under the federal ESEA, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measures (the proficiency of all student subgroups such as low-income, English language learners, and students with disabilities) identify struggling schools. If any one subgroup does not achieve “AYP,” the school is labeled as failing to meet AYP. Instead of using AYP, the flexibility waiver would allow Florida to use its own school grading system to identify struggling schools that need intervention and support to improve.  Last year, just 10 percent of Florida schools achieved AYP. Under modeling simulations using Florida’s new school grades, less than 10 percent of Florida schools would be categorized as F schools.

6.  Will special diplomas still count in high school graduation rates?

A.  Yes. There will be two ways of measuring high school graduation rates. Florida’s goal is to help all students reach their highest potential and earning a special diploma recognizes impressive achievement for many individuals. So special diplomas will continue to be counted and included in Florida’s accountability system when calculating high school graduation rates for school grades. 

Over a number of years, the US Department of Education has developed and phased in the Federal Uniform Graduation Rate, which only counts standard diplomas and measures the percent of regular diplomas awarded in each state.  The US DOE requires use of the federal rate with or without an ESEA flexibility waiver.  Because of this, schools will have more incentive to encourage and provide additional instructional intervention to all students, especially students with disabilities who may have the potential to earn a standard diploma. 

7.  Why is Florida setting a minimum reading requirement that could mean failing schools?

A.  Under our current school grading system, it is possible for a school to receive an “A” grade when three out of four students cannot meet Florida’s grade-level standards for reading. This is not acceptable for Florida’s students, parents or taxpayers. Reading is critical to career and personal success.  Under the proposed school grading changes, Florida would implement a reading performance threshold requiring a school to have at least 25 percent of its students reading on grade level or it would receive an “F” grade.

8.  Are the reading requirements for English language learners (ELL) reasonable?

A.  Concerns have been raised that 12 months is not enough time for an ELL student to fully integrate and become proficient in English. However, the vast majority of ELL students will have approximately two years of instruction prior to the state testing that is reflected in school grades.  The length of time an ELL student is in the country before a school receives a school grade based on their proficiency is not a question of two years versus one year, but three years versus two.

9.  Would we be treating students with disabilities (SWD) and English language learners differently under the proposed school grading changes?

A.  Including performance scores for both SWD and ELL will be for students already taking the FCAT and for those taking the alternate assessment. Students will experience no change in their testing and should only see improvements in their schooling.  Students with disabilities and English language learners are the only two subgroups whose scores are only included in the learning gains portion of school grades even though they are held to the same standards to graduate. 

Using both performance and learning gains for SWD and ELL students (in their second year) will, for the first time, include all students equally within the same accountability system.  Achievement of all students is critical. Devaluing the importance of the education of some students over others is inequitable.  Achievement scores of SWD and ELL students have dramatically increased as we have consistently measured their progress.

Here are some examples:

  • Florida had the highest combined NAEP gains for children with disabilities in the nation for 2003-2009.
  • The percent of English language learners proficient in FCAT Mathematics increased from 21 percent in 2001 to 39 percent in 2010. 
  • The percent of English language learners proficient in FCAT Reading has increased from 11 percent in 2001 to 28 percent in 2010.
  • The percent of students with disabilities proficient in FCAT Reading, grades 3-10 has increased from 19 percent in 2001 to 33 percent in 2010.  
  • The percent of students with disabilities proficient in FCAT Mathematics, grades 3-10 has increased from 20 percent in 2001 to 39 percent in 2010.  

10.  Do the proposed school grading rule changes set the bar too high for students with disabilities and English language learners?

A.  Florida is a state with significant diversity.  The economic development of our state depends on the success of all students. Over the past decade, Florida’s accountability system has been characterized by continually boosting academic standards. Without exception, as the examples above confirm, those increases have led to improved student performance across all subgroups.  The inclusion of SWD and ELL performance scores will be no different. We expect to see even greater percentages of proficiency within these two subgroups.

Florida must be successful in preparing our youth for high school graduation, college and careers.  All students, no matter how they are classified, have to demonstrate proficiency on the grade 10 FCAT to earn a standard diploma.  Measuring and counting the performance of students throughout their educational careers (PK-20) helps to ensure their future success.

11.  Will schools that focus on exceptional student education (ESE centers) get an “F” grade under the proposed school grading changes?

A.  One simulation includes grading all schools that serve students with disabilities; however, we have been reviewing options for schools that serve only these students. One of the options would be to consider an ESE center as an alternative school which allows the school to choose to receive either a school grade or a school improvement rating.

12.  Will schools turn away students with disabilities or English language learners because they could mean lower school grades?

A.  Under the current federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the scores of all “subgroups,” such as disabled students and those for whom English is a second language, are already included when calculating AYP.  Last year, 90 percent of Florida’s schools failed to achieve AYP. Under the proposed school grading rules, which include the performance scores of students with disabilities and English language learners, more than 90 percent of Florida schools would pass. While the proposed school grading changes would include performance measures for students with disabilities and English language learners for the first time when calculating school grades, not to include them devalues their importance compared to other students. In addition, the Department of Education conducts monitoring visits to districts and schools and will review student placements to ensure that students are not placed in center schools inappropriately. 

13.  How will the proposed changes and the ESEA flexibility waiver affect the Race to the Top grant?

A.  These proposed changes will not have an impact on the department’s Race to the Top grant.

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