Civics shifts, school grades and Schools of Hope

Last year, Florida lawmakers created a new program called Schools of Hope. Its goals were twofold: Ratchet up the pressure on low-performing public schools to quickly increase student achievement, and encourage new alternatives — especially proven charter school operators — to take root in struggling communities.

School letter grades released yesterday suggest the first part of the plan is working. The number of persistently low-performing district schools (those rated F, or those rated C or lower for three or more years) fell by about 40, from around 90 to around 50.

There were some success stories that might deserve more attention, like Broward County’s Martin Luther King Montessori Academy. The district created the public Montessori magnet to turn around persistent low performance in a high-poverty school after gathering input from the community. The initiative appears to have worked. MLK’s grade rose from an F to a C this year.

Then there were schools like Matthew Gilbert Middle School in Duval County.

The school has earned D’s and F’s since 2012. Last year, it earned 333 points in the state’s school grading formula and received a D.  This year, it rose to a C, bolstered by improved performance on state civics tests. Last year, 144 students took the civics test, and 47 percent passed. This year, only 44 students took the civics test, and 95 percent passed. Increased social studies scores netted the school 40 points in its A-F score this year, and it earned a total of 402 — enough for a C. Without the civics improvement, it would have narrowly missed a C and faced takeover under Schools of Hope.

The Florida Coalition of School Board Members, an association of conservative-leaning school officials, made waves this week when it decried similar civics maneuvers in other Duval schools, as well as some in Polk and Manatee Counties.

Here’s what happened. Most Florida public-school students take their civics tests in seventh grade. This year, some districts decided a large number their students, particularly low-scoring students in low-performing schools, would take their civics tests in eighth grade, instead.

As a result, a large number of low-scoring students in these districts did not take the civics test this year, and will likely take the test next year. The civics passing rates in their schools rose substantially. In some cases, letter grades did, too. Duval school officials said they did nothing untoward. They said they shifted low-scoring students into an academic path that will work better for them. Here’s how William Mason Davis, Duval’s chief academic officer, explained the situation, according to the Florida Times-Union.

He agreed that there were declines in the numbers of students tested in civics, but that is largely the result of the district changing its student progression plan and its master scheduling guidelines so that students can take more courses and be better prepared for the test.

For instance, law studies was added as a recommended prerequisite for some students, based on their reading and language arts levels, Davis said.

“The students’ incredible scores are a direct result of the tireless effort of our teachers, students and parents,” he said, adding Duval in recent years made similar kinds of course changes to better prepare students for algebra I, geometry and biology end-of-course exams, which also saw jumps in passing rates.

Davis predicted the numbers of students taking civics exams will increase in the coming years.

In short, many Duval students with low reading scores took a different social-studies course in seventh grade this year. Next year, they’ll likely take the civics test as eighth-graders — something state law clearly allows, a Department of Education spokeswoman confirmed to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

If some schools temporarily rise from D’s to C’s, it could have lasting effects.

The 2017 Schools of Hope law opened a new gateway for proven charter school organizations to expand into the Jacksonville area. A charter organization approved as a Hope Operator can apply to open in the vicinity of a persistently low-performing school like Gilbert and receive a streamlined application process, financial grants and loans to help pay for facilities. If more schools like Gilbert rise out of their persistently low-performing status, there will be fewer options for new Schools of Hope to open. That could become a factor in the decision-making of several nationally renowned charter school organizations considering Jacksonville expansions.

The other two persistently low-performing middle schools in Duval County, Northwestern and Arlington Middle Schools, showed patterns similar to Gilbert’s. They saw declines of more than 100 and more than 200 civics test-takers, respectively. And their civics passing rates improved by 27 and 50 points, respectively. But their school grades remained D’s in this year’s results. At least 10 other Duval middle schools that were not listed as persistently low-performing showed similar patterns in civics.

In Polk, nearly every middle school showed a similar pattern, with a few exceptions. Lawton Chiles Middle School boasted a 95 percent civics passing rate in 2017. The exact same number of students took the test in 2018, and the passing rate fell two percentage points. The school maintained its longstanding A. In most of the district’s middle schools, however, the number of students taking civics declined, and passing rates soared. As a result, Polk County’s civics passing-rate ranking surged from no. 43 out of the state’s 50 largest school districts to no. 2, tied with Duval, which also took a major leap in the rankings.

In Manatee, the pattern was concentrated in a smaller number of schools, including Sugg Middle School, the district’s only persistently low-performing middle school. District officials, however, said they were carrying out a more widespread practice, according to the Herald-Tribune.

Superintendent Diana Greene said Manatee followed the lead of several other districts — including Sarasota — in deciding to allow struggling readers take the test as eighth-graders. The roughly 1,000 students who didn’t take the test this year will take it next year.

“Don’t try to act like we did something wrong,” Greene said.

Sugg wound up rising from a D to a C. It improved enough in other subjects to reach a passing grade even if its civics grade hadn’t improved.

In a statement distributed by the school board member coalition, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who championed Schools of Hope, underlined the importance of vigilance in this era of increased accountability pressure. It will be worth watching schools’ results, and keeping an eye on where rising scores are driven by bona fide academic improvements, and where they’re driven by shifts of other kinds.

“We passed Schools of Hope to eliminate failure factories in the state of Florida and ensure every child in this state has access to a world-class education,” Corcoran said. “We want to see schools make genuine improvements in teaching and learning.”

One important test will come next year, when low-scoring students who didn’t take civics this year will take assessments in the subject.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)


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