- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - After two-and-a-half years of contentious debate, Florida has finally put in place passing scores and a new grading formula linked to the state’s new standardized test.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved new passing scores for what students should earn on annual tests for reading and math, as well as end-of-course exams given in algebra and geometry. Students take the math and reading tests from third grade to 10th, and they are used to determine grade promotion and graduation.

The board also approved a new formula that uses those test scores to assign Florida’s schools a grade from A to F.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who recommended the changes adopted by the board, called the vote “historic” and said the new grading formula would provide a more “transparent way for us to calculate school grades.” Under the scores adopted, about 51 percent of 10th-graders passed the test needed for graduation

“It’s easy to explain; it’s a good move forward,” Stewart said.

Florida has had its grading system in place for years but the transition to a new test linked to standards based on Common Core has been anything but smooth since 2013. This past year was the first time students across the state took the new Florida Standards Assessment. But the rollout of the test was troubled, and school superintendents called on the state to delay using the results.

State officials said they had no legal authority to do that and instead drew up a set of passing scores. When Stewart first proposed the scores last fall, the board - whose members are appointed by Gov. Rick Scott - seemed like it would reject them.

Some business and education advocacy groups said the recommendations weren’t tough enough. They said results from national tests showed Florida students are lagging behind their peers from similar states. Board member John Padget said students needed to get a “cold shower” early in their school careers so they could get the help they need to graduate and get a job.

A group linked to former Gov. Jeb Bush also called on the board members to reject Stewart’s grading changes, arguing that the state needed to raise the bar. Stewart’s proposal would make it easier for schools to earn an A grade.

But going along with a tougher grading formula would have resulted in a surge in the number of failing schools from the current level. One estimate said the number of F schools would top 500 - which would be substantially higher than they had been since the grading system was put in place back in 1999. School superintendents asked board members to back the changes pushed by Stewart. They argued that Florida’s system needed some stability.

“We need to re-instill public trust and confidence in the state’s accountability system,” Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning said.

Two members acknowledged during the meeting that they had been persuaded to forgo moving ahead with higher levels. Board member Michael Olenick cited one Martin County school that he said was struggling to get a C grade and that switching to a tougher scale would “crush their spirit.”

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