Local Poll: School Grades Important But Not Understood

Dec 11, 2014

Nearly half of Duval County residents consider test scores and school grades to be the most important factor when deciding on a school, but the majority say they don't know very much about either, according to a recently released local poll.

Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF) unveiled results from its second annual Education Perceptions Poll Wednesday morning.

Trey Csar, President of Jacksonville Public Education Fund
Credit Rhema Thompson

The group partnered with University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Laboratory to conduct the survey from Nov. 10 to Nov. 16 through random digital dialing. More than 500 residents, including 137 parents completed the survey.

Results showed a generally favorable view of the public school system and its leaders.

About 70 percent of participants rated performance in the district as "fair" or better, and 61 percent of those asked supported a property tax increase in support of public education. About half of participants rated the Duval County School Board and Superintendent were effective. The results are generally level with last year's results.

But notably, the poll shows a sizable portion of participants lack knowledge when it comes to the assessments and grades designed to judge schools.

According to the public opinion poll shows about two-thirds of participants feel uninformed about the state’s new student assessments. And nearly three-quarters said they know relatively little about the state’s school-grading system.

Yet, the largest percentage of participants – 46 percent – said they considered test scores and school grades as leading factors when deciding where to send their kids to school. That’s compared to 15 percent who consider word-of-mouth the most important factor, 21 percent who said perceptions about safety dictated their decision, 3 percent who relied on the media and 9 percent who relied on “something else” in their decision.

“So we hear in this poll that school grades and test scores are the top thing they use when considering where to enroll their children,” said JPEF President Trey Csar. “And then simultaneously we hear that they don’t feel particular informed about school grades or standards or assessments, and those things combined together is very concerning and it’s something that we think deserves some public attention.”

More low grades expected

The findings come the same week that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti presented an outlook on school grades as districts across the state grapple with new tests and a revised grading system.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti
Credit Duval County Public Schools / Facebook

“The challenge has been that the school grading system has changed often, quite substantially, every year, so you’re not always seeing apples to apples comparisons,” he said Monday, during the regular school board meeting.

Over the last three years, he said Florida school districts have seen 32 changes to the state’s accountability system.

“You do see substantial increases in D's and F's,” he said.

And those low marks are expected to increase as schools across the state transition to the new more rigorous Florida Standards Assessment this spring. The state first announced the new exam in March.

Items from the writing portion of the exam are slated to be field tested at selected schools this month, according to the department of education.

However, Vitti noted that other districts that have transitioned to similar assessments such as Jefferson County in Kentucky and New York City have shown a substantial drop in school grades. In both districts, math and reading proficiency among students at every grade fell far below 50 percent.

“Knowing what we know about what we know about the impact the new standards and assessments should have on schools, we should only see a substantial increase in D and F schools in 2015, regardless of what is or is not happening in our school system and throughout the state of Florida,” he said.

Based on how other districts fared and Duval County’s own baseline data, Vitti projected the percentage of students with passing scores to drop as much as 30 percentage points in fourth grade math and 24 percentage points in sixth grade reading.

Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart has said schools will not face penalties for lower grades as a result of the transition to the new standards.

However, Vitti has said the impact of lower grades on the public’s perception of a school can be equally problematic – a concern that the responses in JPEF's public poll appears to support.

"This is the beginning of a conversation that I plan to have with the community about the likely impact that the new standards and assessment will have," he said.

Vitti, along with the Duval County School Board, passed a resolution earlier this year calling for a one-year moratorium on the state’s grading system. While other districts around the state have made similar demands, the state legislators have yet to budge.

“Right now, we know the state plans to issue school grades,” he said. “So we need to brace ourselves for enormous increase in D and F schools and lower performance throughout the state of Florida and in Duval County Public Schools.”

Meanwhile, the results from the JPEF poll will be presented and analyzed at the third annual One by One Convention.

2014 Annual Education Perceptions Poll Formatted Final

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.