By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
About the first of this year, the FCAT rankings were released for all the public high schools and combination high school/middle schools in the state of Florida, with Madison County High School ranked as a “C” school. The high school rankings consisted of several factors besides the FCAT, which counted for 50 percent of the school’s grade. The remaining factors, including overall graduation rates, graduation rates of at-risk students, the percentage of students in advanced placement classes and how well they perform in those classes, comprised the other 50 percent.
This week, the Florida Department of Education released rankings for entire school districts as a whole, but used only FCAT scores as a basis.
Madison County School District received an overall grade of “D,” and in the overall rankings, it came in at the bottom: number 67. Neighboring Jefferson County, came in at number 66 with a “C.”
The Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS) responded that while all superintendents support high standards and accountability, grading entire school districts on FCAT scores alone paints an inaccurate, or at best, an incomplete picture of that district as a whole, and may actually be a disservice to parents, teachers, students and the community at large.
According to a statement issued by Ronald Blocker, President of FADSS and Superintendent of the Orange County School District, “Florida superintendents have always been focused on the ultimate goal of educational success for every student. However, there are substantial economic and fiscal hurdles that continue to undermine that goal…the public school system is a microcosm of the communities they serve and not all schools and school districts are equal in terms of funding, economic vitality, poverty levels, etc…all factors that play a significant role in the success of the public school system” (the Orange County School District received an overall grade of “B” and was ranked 34th out of the 67 school districts).
Okaloosa County School Superintendent Alexis Tibbets agreed, pointing out that, “All public schools already receive a grade from the Department of Education based on multiple performance measures, which provides a complete picture of the true academic success of Florida’s public school students” (an “A” district, Okaloosa came in at number six in the rankings).
There are many things that the district-wide FCAT rankings alone do not take into account, and Madison County School Superintendent Lou Miller spelled out some of the differences between the last-ranked Madison School District and those districts ranked as the Top Ten: Madison students are three and a half times more likely to be economically disadvantaged; nearly 78 percent of them qualify for free or reduced price lunches; 26 percent of Madison County’s entire population lives below the poverty line; the county’s overall unemployment rate is 12.5 percent – one out of every eight people is without a job.
Since the 2003-2004 school year, Madison has shared the bottom four rankings with Jefferson, Hamilton and Gadsden counties, places that, like Madison, are mostly rural counties with struggling small towns and persistent problems with poverty. So far, Madison County has been ranked 66th, 65th and now 67th.
In households where families struggle to make ends meet, working long hours for low pay, there may not be time to help children with homework or pick them up from after-school programs. Where one or both parents are unemployed, there may not be adequate transportation to allow children to take advantage of after school tutoring programs or other extracurricular activities that stimulate and promote interest in learning; in both examples, such children may be solely dependant on the schedule of the school bus. If there are any fees involved for field trips or other extracurricular activities, there may not be any extra money for those fees. Poor nutrition, inadequate health care, stress and toxic environments may also play a role.
The Madison County School District has been struggling to help remediate these problems for the last few years; the district has been on the State’s Differentiated Accountability List for the last three years, receiving weekly support from a team of experts from the Department of Education.
“When comparing our students to other districts across the State, it is evident that our administrators and teachers in Madison County are continuing to improve instruction in the classroom.” Miller stated. As one example, in the lowest-scoring 25 percent of Madison students, well over half of them – 58 percent – made a year’s worth of Learning Gains in Reading. That is only three percentage points behind the lowest scoring 25 percent in the top-ranked St. John’s District – 61 percent. In another area, Learning Gains in Math (for the same group of lowest-scoring students), Madison is only 11 percentage points behind St John’s.
Madison School District has made changes in school leadership, curriculum, instructional materials, teaching practices and professional development. The district has also established a Turn Around office to help the three struggling schools, Greenville Elementary, Madison County Central and Madison County High School. Of these three schools, Madison County High School is ranked as a “C” school. Greenville Elementary and Madison Central are both ranked as “D” schools.
Two other schools, Lee Elementary and Pinetta Elementary, are ranked “B” and “A” respectively.
The FADSS is encouraged by the fact that Gov. Rick Scott has said he is willing to explore the multiple factors that affect educational achievement and student performance. FADSS President Block has stated that he and others look forward to working with the governor to take a comprehensive look at all the factors that effect student performance in order to better understand how to improve educational achievement.
“We are moving forward and making progress,” said Miller. “Our students are continually being challenged to improve their achievement on meeting high standards as the difficulty of the FCAT has increased through the last year. The Madison County School District is dedicated to improving the level of education for every student by providing the tools necessary to become college and career ready.”