Commentary: Florida’s school accountability system pays pay off

Re-posting an op ed column from the Tampa Bay Times.

By Patricia Levesque

Since 1999, Florida’s K-12 reforms have made the state a national model and, more importantly, prepared more students for success in college, career and life.

We cannot stop now. Success is never final when it comes to our students. While many Floridians may not have noticed, the Florida Department of Education has taken a strong step to ensure that our state’s students are equipped to succeed in the future.

In September, the Florida Department of Education and 33 other states submitted their plans for compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act to the U.S. Education Department.

Florida’s plan, once again, will solidify our state as a model for the nation.

The plan continues and strengthens three critical reforms that have helped transform Florida in just 15 years from one of the worst-performing states in the nation to the top quartile in K-12 academic achievement. Florida’s graduation rate is at a 13-year high. Florida’s fourth-graders scored two grade levels higher, low-income students scored three grades higher, and black students and Hispanic students performed two-and-a-half grade levels higher in 2015 than they did before the implementation of A-F school grading. Florida’s plan includes:

• A-F school grades: Florida’s powerful and easy-to-understand A-F school ratings emphasize student proficiency, student growth and achievement on accelerated coursework. The rating system will help Florida continue to establish effective incentives for schools and drive state and federal resources to the schools that need them most.

• School turnaround: Florida’s approach to school turnaround is exemplary and designed to help students more quickly in a failing school. Low-performing schools that fail to show measurable improvement after considerable help from the state must either close, become a public charter school or be operated by another external entity, ensuring that students assigned to these failing schools will have immediate, higher-quality options.

• Inclusion of subgroups of students in school accountability: Florida’s focus on helping students who have been historically disadvantaged is critical to success for the entire state. Florida’s plan requires that the performance of student groups — based on racial and economic status, students who are English learners, students with disabilities and an additional subgroup of the lowest performing 25 percent of students in each school — are reported annually and remain a critical part of each school’s grade.

In fact, Florida goes further than most states in holding schools accountable for traditionally underserved subgroups.

While the plan is one of the strongest we’ve seen, we hope state leaders will consider a couple of changes to make the plan even stronger.

Although Florida will report critical information about English language proficiency and progress on school report cards, the state’s A-F letter grades will not incorporate an indicator of English language proficiency. With students from around the world coming to Florida, the state should explain how the plan’s provisions for English language learners will meet ESSA’s requirement that schools are held accountable for the performance of English learners.

Currently, Florida includes only D schools in its annual identification of schools for targeted support. More students will be helped if the state identifies subgroups of low-performing students in schools that earn an A, B or C. Regardless of a school’s grade, students in a specific subgroup that are not performing well should be the focus for help and attention.

One of the most critical factors in a child’s success is a family empowered with reliable data to inform their decisions and choices. With these key improvements to its ESSA plan, Florida will maintain and strengthen the commitment to providing fair, honest and transparent accountability for all Floridians working together toward the same goal: a better future for each and every child in our great state.

Patricia Levesque is the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future.