Viewpoint: The ‘They changed the formula’ education excuse

School Desk
By Jac Wilder VerSteeg, Context Florida

Florida’s national ranking by Education Week has dropped precipitously, to No. 28. In 2013, Florida was ranked No. 6.
When Florida’s public education system rose to No. 6, politicians raced to crow and claim credit. The ranking proved, they said, that Florida’s encouragement of charter and voucher schools and the state’s accountability system were working. All that high-stakes testing – so maligned by teachers, parents and students – was having its intended effect.

Now, of course, politicians and just about everybody in education policy is looking for an excuse for the recent poor showing.
The main excuse is that “the formula has changed.”

And here’s the thing: The excuse appears to be valid. Education Week itself says that formula changes have affected the rankings in its respected “Quality Counts” report.

As The Tampa Bay Times reported, “Some of the criteria used previously has been eliminated. This year’s formula was changed to focus more on outcomes instead of policy. Florida earned a grade of C, the national average.”

So, problem solved, right? That’s the end of the matter.

Except it shouldn’t be.

There is considerable irony and poetic justice in this development. For years now, teachers, schools and school districts have complained that they have been unfairly punished by a grading system whose formulas constantly changed.

The state at first tried to claim this was simple whining by the likes of teachers unions and others who did not want true accountability. But in recent years the clamoring has become so loud that the state had begun to artificially inflate school grades when the formulas would have resulted in precipitous drops – analogous to the plunge the state just experienced.

Things have gotten so bad that the state arbitrarily ruled that no school’s grade could drop by more than a letter a year, even if the actual raw score indicated a steeper drop.

The “They changed the formula” complaint continues to be extremely relevant. Florida students soon will take a new set of tests pegged to the controversial Common Core State Standards. That, of course, entails a whole new set of formulas. No one knows how the new tests will affect school grades, but the consensus is that it won’t be pretty.
The Legislature and state Board of Education should, of course, suspend school grades and some consequences for students – such as tying graduation to passage of the high-stakes tests – until the formulas can be worked out and validated.

Hey, if the “They changed the formula” excuse is good enough for the state, it’s good enough for the schools and students.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.