Big trouble in Florida schools — and it’s not a hurricane

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite image of Hurricane Rita taken on Sept. 20, 2005. ( NOAA via Reuters)

There’s big trouble in Florida — and it’s not a hurricane.

A battle over Florida’s public education system may be reaching a tipping point, with school superintendents revolting against the state’s school accountability system and editorial boards of major newspapers now weighing in on their side. One, the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida,  is warning against the collapse of that system.

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents issued a statement on Sept. 25 saying that  superintendents have “lost confidence” in the current accountability system for students and schools, which is based on the scores students receive on the controversial Florida Standards Assessments. The superintendents called for a suspension of the accountability system and a full review.

The assessments — given to Florida students for the first time this past spring — are aligned to the Florida Standards, which were adopted in 2014 to replace the Common Core State Standards but strongly resemble the Core. Florida also dropped the Common Core test known as the PARCC, which was created by a multi-consortium funded by the Obama administration to develop new exams aligned to the Core. The administration of the new exams was marred by severe technological problems, frustrating superintendents, teachers and students.

The Miami Herald published an editorial on Sept. 28, with the headline, “State fails its own school district,” that said in part:

The long-festering dispute between local school districts and an unreasonable Florida Department of Education turned into open revolt last week as superintendents across the state finally declared that they’ve lost confidence in the state’s testing and grading system.

The well-justified howl from the districts follows years of mounting frustration with a flawed system that unfairly affects schools and students, and the refusal of state education leaders to acknowledge the damage.

Essentially, the superintendents declared that they’ve had it with a so-called “accountability system” that shortchanges the teachers, students and parents across Florida, regardless of what Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and her allies in Tallahassee may think.

And the Sun-Sentinel ran an editorial [see full text below] on Sept. 29, which succinctly explains what is going in Florida, where Jeb Bush, as governor, launched education reforms from 1999-2007 that were adopted by many states around the country. As the editorial notes, Bush’s standardized test-based accountability system was a model only in the sense that people followed it, not because it was good. It says in part:

The superintendents say in their statement that, “We have witnessed the erosion of public support for an accountability system that was once a model for the nation.” But Florida’s system was a “model” only in the sense it has been emulated. It never has been the perfect model too many pretend.

Now the flaws have been exposed to an extent never before acknowledged. Unless teachers are held harmless and the only school grades assigned are “Incomplete,” the collapse of Florida’s accountability system will be complete.

Bush is now running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and is touting his education reforms. However, he doesn’t discuss the collapse of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, the precursor to the Florida Assessments, which became riddled with test score validity problems. In recent years, school reformers have added new stakes to the test scores; now they are used to evaluate educators in a process known as “value-added measurement,” a method that assessment experts have warned against using for such high-stakes purposes.  As an illustration of how nonsensical the VAM process in Florida can be, one teacher in Florida told his school board this year how highest performing students actually harmed his evaluation.

[How students with top test scores hurt their teacher’s evaluation]

Florida’s superintendents are calling for the state to suspend the accountability system for a year — meaning that the scores from this spring’s administration of the exams will not be used in evaluations — and a full review.

In this high stakes environment students, teachers, and schools should not be impacted by a rushed and flawed administration of new, untried assessments. While direct negative consequences were avoided for students, the results of a flawed assessment will impact teacher evaluations (VAM) and be used to judge the quality of schools.

The statement refers to a report commissioned by the Legislature which concluded that the 2015 test results should not be used to deny students the right to graduate or move to the next grade.

Here’s the Sun-Sentinel editorial, which I am publishing with permission from the editorial board chief of the newspaper:

Superintendents right to distrust test scores

Florida’s school superintendents — supported by the Florida PTA — have pinpointed the best way to use scores on the Florida Standards Assessments that public school students took last spring: Don’t.

Because assessment of the new assessment is incomplete, the only valid grade the state can assign to schools is “Incomplete.” Further, the scores should not be used to evaluate teachers.

The state already had concluded that FSA results were too shaky to use them in determining whether students should be held back or promoted. Administration of the test heavily relied on computers and was fraught with glitches.

If the test cannot be used to evaluate students, there is no way the state should use the scores to evaluate teachers or hand out A-to-F school grades.

And that resolution would be easy if the FSA — and the FCAT before it — were primarily about students and education. But high-stakes testing is tangled in politics. Rationality about high-stakes tests long ago went out the window.

On Friday [Sept. 25], the Florida Association of District School Superintendents issued a statement that said in part: “Florida district school superintendents have lost confidence in the current accountability system for the students of the State of Florida.”

The superintendents explained that, “In this high-stakes environment, students, teachers and schools should not be impacted by a rushed and flawed administration of new, untried assessments.”

Current law requires the state Department of Education to hand down school grades. But an “I” for “Incomplete,” which the superintendents advocate, is the only possible valid grade.

Another recommendation in the superintendents’ statement deserves attention. They implored state education officials not to treat the FSA as if its components represented the same kind of testing as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This sounds arcane, but ignoring the superintendents could, in future years, result in thousands of students being retained a grade or denied a diploma.

At a recent meeting of the state Board of Education, some members were bothered that many more students have passed state tests than pass the NAEP. They suggested raising passing scores on the FSA so that passing rates on the NAEP and FSA would be similar.

If the state board followed through on that suggestion, failure rates would skyrocket. But members seemed willing to accept that result in the name of “accountability.”

The superintendents, however, noted that, “There is no evidence that NAEP fully aligns to or measures the Florida standards.”

It is alarming that the Board of Education apparently is unaware that NAEP and FSA are two completely different kinds of tests.

A hint as to how higher passing scores could affect students came Monday, when Education Commissioner Pam Stewart recommended a scale that would mean 49 percent of 10th-graders would fail the English language portion of the FSA.

Since as far back as 1999, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush insisted on issuing the first bogus school grades, the self-described education reformers have tainted — or downright ruined — their own reforms by ignoring the limitations of high-stakes testing. They constantly rejiggered the FCAT and piled on new burdens — such as teacher evaluations — that it was not designed to bear. Politics likewise spoiled introduction of the new Florida Standards Assessments — which were so rushed the state revamped a test bought from Utah instead of developing its own. Politicians tried to persuade angry parents that they had backed away from the Common Core State Standards. But that essentially is what the Florida Standards Assessments are.

The superintendents say in their statement that, “We have witnessed the erosion of public support for an accountability system that was once a model for the nation.” But Florida’s system was a “model” only in the sense it has been emulated. It never has been the perfect model too many pretend.

Now the flaws have been exposed to an extent never before acknowledged. Unless teachers are held harmless and the only school grades assigned are “Incomplete,” the collapse of Florida’s accountability system will be complete.

Via Washington Post 

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