By LAURA GREEN | Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009
For a decade, the state graded high schools based on a minimum standards test, designed to measure primarily if students had learned ninth- and 10th-grade reading and math.
But now high schools also will be rated on the proportion of their students who can enter community college without needing remedial classes, pass exams to earn industry certification or college credit and actually graduate in four years.
This new, complex formula to compute A to F grades might sound like just another mathematical equation used to judge schools, but already it's changing the guiding philosophy of Palm Beach County high schools.
"All of us, in response to the former grading scale, put an inordinate amount of time into preparing students for the FCAT. That was the push, the push, the push because that was what the grade was based on," said Boca Raton High Principal Geoff McKee. "Now we have to prepare them for SAT, ACT, AP. ... That creates a much better-educated student. We all should have been doing that all along and now we're going to be measured on that."
Critics of the old FCAT-only methodology, including Palm Beach County Superintendent Art Johnson, argued it was too narrow and potentially biased against poor students, who tended to post lower test scores than students from affluent homes.
The new criteria also seem to favor schools that historically have done well on the FCAT, have posted high graduation rates and have offered college-level courses.
Schools earn points based on the number of students taking accelerated classes, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or technical courses that end with a certification exam.
Suncoast High, for example, had 100 percent of its students taking AP courses last year because of a rule that students must complete at least two during their four years.
"It's an easier transition for a school like Suncoast because that's been the mind-set of the school, that (students) would get exposure to the AP curriculum," Principal Linda Cartlidge said.
Realizing that few county high schools were designed like Suncoast, the district's research staff built a computer program that uses FCAT scores to predict which students would likely pass an Advanced Placement exam.
The district's program can spit out a list of qualified students by course. It also can show the students' race, which might help schools close a long-standing race gap.
Last school year, just 16 percent of African-American students countywide participated in the AP program, compared with 45 percent of white and 38 percent of Hispanic students.
"What I hope is that it's going to help the program become more inclusive," said Dean Stecker, director of research and evaluation. "It opens up eyes that there are a lot of kids out there that you didn't think about that you probably should be thinking about."
At Palm Beach Lakes High School, where just 18 percent of students took an AP course in 2009, Principal Nathan Collins held a parent meeting to share the results of the report and explain how the more rigorous courses could prepare their children for college.
"The parents really bought into that," Collins said.
The result: So many students signed up that Collins added extra sections of AP courses.
Schools such as Palm Beach Lakes, which are just building their AP programs, can still earn high marks in the new grading system. It awards bonus points to schools that show increasing AP participation or pass rates, graduation rates and college-readiness rates.
With every change in the state's grading formula, some treat it as a new system to be gamed. Some administrators thought they'd found a loophole in the new system: They could enroll large numbers of students in AP or IB courses and earn maximum participation points even if the students failed the end-of-course exams.
State officials learned that some Florida high schools, in Duval County for example, had signed up freshmen and sophomores who weren't ready for the college-level courses, so they revised the rule just days before the state board was to give it final approval to create a deterrent. Now only ninth- and 10th-graders who pass an AP or IB exam count in the participation column.
Forest Hill High Principal Mayra Stafford said she was disappointed by the change because some students might learn a lot in the class but not count toward the school's points because they have a bad testing day.
"We all know what can happen on one test, one day," she said.
But Stafford is hopeful the drive to enroll more students will pay off for Forest Hill because she personally reviewed each file to ensure the students she was encouraging to take the college-level courses are ready.
Early Florida Department of Education simulations based on the new formula show that more Palm Beach County high schools could drop a grade than improve by one.
State officials expect school grades to improve year after year as principals focus on the new measures, especially graduation rates, which they call the "bottom line of our high schools."
"I think it's going to be a struggle for us as a district that we can meet the expectations this year," said Jeffrey Hernandez, Palm Beach County schools chief academic officer.
"It's a system that has high expectations for not only the district and schools but also for teachers and students. It's a system that has an end goal in mind that allows us to grow each year."
Geoff McKeeLinda CartlidgeWhat the principals say ...A'I have mixed emotions. Any time something new comes in, there will be some downfall. I am hoping we are not one of the schools taking a major hit.''Any time there's additional accountability, there's added stress. But that stress can be a motivating factor. We all want to get an A.''I think we really want everyone to be looking at college as an outcome of their high school education.'