Florida may lower student achievement standards

Nirvi Shah
March 16, 2005

After 77 percent of Florida schools failed last year under the state's version of the federal No Child Left Behind law, Education Commissioner John Winn said Tuesday he's considering lowering student achievement standards under that law.

The changes would alter standards Florida set for itself under the federal law, something Gov. Jeb Bush and Winn said they wouldn't do just a few months ago.

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Changes are needed because Florida has "such a high number of schools not making" adequate yearly progress, Winn said at a state Board of Education meeting in Miami. He said he wants Florida's plan changed before this year's calculation of adequate yearly progress.

Winn said he and Bush recently went to Washington and spoke with federal Education Secretary Margaret Spellings about changing Florida's requirements. A formal request is due by April 1. Under the No Child law, states must create standards-based tests, test students with them annually and 100 percent of students must be passing the tests by 2014. But each state sets interim benchmarks, called adequate yearly progress, for meeting this long-term goal.

In Florida, schools are labeled as making adequate yearly progress if enough students pass the math and reading FCAT, including students with disabilities and children who are learning English. Every one of eight groups that are measured at a school must meet the threshold.

The way Florida's plan is written, one of these subgroups can be just 30 students, who may make up a tiny fraction of a school. One of the things the state wants to adjust is the size of these subgroups, Winn said. The state superintendents' association also has proposed counting only subgroups that make up at least 15 percent of a school's population. In Palm Beach County, the only reason some schools didn't make adequate progress last year was because of one group.

Winn also wants to lower requirements this year that 48 percent of each subgroup pass the reading and 53 percent must pass the math test, which are significant increases over last year when so many schools failed.

"We talked about different approaches in the annual increases for our proficiency goals going up," Winn said of his conversation with Spellings. The state superintendents' association proposed using last year's benchmarks for another year.

The superintendents' group also requested that for some groups of children, such as the disabled and those learning English, an improvement in scores should be enough to make the adequate progress standard, even if the children don't pass the test. Using these so-called "learning gains" for some subgroups was another proposal Winn made to the federal Education Department.

While Winn described his conversation with Spellings as informal, the fact that it took place is a good sign, said David Mosrie, executive director of the state superintendents' association.

"I believe the governor and commissioner were being responsive to concerns of the superintendents," Mosrie said. "I am waiting to see what they requested and what is confirmed."