Florida implemented a new school accountability system in 1998 called the “A-Plus Program.”[11] This system assigns letter grades, A through F, to individual schools to signal how well their students are performing on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a state-sponsored standardized test.[12] Students in grades three through 10 take FCAT tests every year in reading and math and periodically in writing and science.[13]

Schools that performed well received financial rewards directly from the state.[*] Florida schools that improve by a letter grade or maintain an A were rewarded with an additional $75 per student.[14] Although schools that received a D or an F were provided additional funding,[†] schools that consistently received poor grades faced consequences. For example, if a school receives an F or three D’s in a row, parents of children in that school are given the right to transfer their children to another public school of their choice, such as a charter public school, an in-district public school or an out-of-district public school.[‡]

Further, schools consistently earning an F may have to implement state-imposed reforms, including executing a state-approved “turnaround plan,” contracting with a management company to operate the school or converting to a charter school.15 All schools marked with an F for a single year or a D for three consecutive years are subject to site visits by state-appointed “community assessment teams,” which make recommendations for improvement to the district governing board that controls the school.[16]

The A-Plus Program’s grading formula has encouraged schools to focus on improving the performance of their lowest-achieving students. For most years since 1999 (the first year letter grades were assigned), grades have been a weighted average of three elements of the school’s performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test: average achievement on the FCAT in all subjects for all students (50 percent); individual learning gains on the FCAT in reading and math for all students (25 percent); and individual achievement growth on the FCAT in reading and math for students in the lowest quartile of achievement (25 percent).[§] Schools that boost the math and reading achievement of their lowest-performing students (and all schools have a lowest quartile), have the best chance of improving their overall performance, since achievement scores for these students affect all three categories.

[*] Fla. Stat. § 1008.36. Note that education funding is usually sent to a school district, rather than a school. See, for instance, Ryan S. Olson and Michael D. LaFaive, “A Michigan School Money Primer for Policymakers, School Officials, Media and Residents,” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 2007), 4, http://goo.gl/e4B78 (accessed June 4, 2013). This point is discussed in more detail in section “Lessons for Michigan: 3. School Accountability” below.

[†] The added resources to these schools do not seem to have made a large impact on these schools ability to improve. Jay P. Greene, “The Looming Shadow,” Education Next, vol. 1, no. 4, (Hoover Institution, 2001), http://goo.gl/rkqM6 (accessed April 3, 2013).

[‡] Fla. Stat. § 1002.38. Initially, students attending schools that received an F for two out of four years qualified for a voucher that would pay for part or all of the tuition costs at a private school or other costs associated with attending a different, higher-rated public school. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the voucher for private school tuition (though not public school costs) was unconstitutional. “Opportunity Scholarship Program,” (Florida Department of Education), http://goo.gl/sLkTw (accessed March 22, 2013). For more information, see Sam Dillon, “Florida Supreme Court Blocks School Vouchers,” The New York Times, Jan. 6, 2006, http://goo.gl/tCyOl (accessed May 31, 2013).

[§] “Grading Florida’s Public Schools 2012,” (Florida Department of Education, 2012), http://goo.gl/inujX (accessed May 17, 2013). See also Fla. Stat. § 1008.34 (3)(b) and “2012 Guide to Calculating School Grades: Technical Assistance Paper,” (Florida Department of Education, 2012), 9-14, http://goo.gl/iRpGs (accessed March 20, 2013). Beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, only 50 percent of a high school’s grade was based on this formula. The other 50 percent of a high school’s grade is now based on other factors including overall graduation rates, participation in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and “dual enrollment” courses, SAT and ACT scores, graduation rate of “at-risk” students and “standardized end-of-course assessments.” Fla. Stat. § 1008.34(3)(b)3. Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, “standardized end-of-course assessments” for certain grades were also used in the school grading formula. Fla. Stat. § 1008.22(3)(c)2.a. Beginning in the 2011-2012 school year, grades for middle schools were based on performance (based on standardized end-of-year assessments) and participation in “high school level courses,” and “students’ attainment of national industry certification.” Fla. Stat. § 1008.34(3)(b)3.

[11] Greene, “An Evaluation of the Florida A-Plus Accountability and School Choice Program,” (Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, 2001), 1, http://goo.gl/8gI5b (accessed May 31, 2013).

[12] Matthew Ladner and Dan Lips, “Demography as Destiny?,” Education Next, vol. 9, no. 3, (Hoover Institution, 2009): 25, http://goo.gl/hPEbS (accessed May 31, 2013).

[13] “Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test: Test Design Summary,” (Florida Department of Education, 2009), 1, http://goo.gl/suTXQ (accessed March 15, 2013).

[14] Matthew Ladner and Lindsey M. Burke, “Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: Learning from Florida’s Reforms,” (The Heritage Foundation, 2010), 10, http://goo.gl/2qDlu (accessed May 31, 2013).

[15] Fla. Stat. § 1008.33(4)-(5).

[16] Fla. Stat. § 1008.345(6)(d).