Superintendents in Florida Say Tests Failed Stateâ€™s Schools, not Vice Versa
Ohanian Comment: Superintendents complain that because the tests this year were new, no comparable data exist, schools cannot make a reliable yearly comparison. There is no baseline; the school grades will be based just on this year's scores, which is against the law. Too bad they think things will be OK next year.
They need to press the "stop" button, not just the "pause" button.
by Lizette Alvarez
MIAMI -- When protests from parents and teachers erupted against the new Common Core tests here, Florida thought it had a solution: It dropped the tests.
But it abruptly switched sources for the exams, hoping the substitute would be more palatable.
Now, nearly six months after students finished taking their exams, Florida faces an even worse rebellion, led by the state's 67 school superintendents. In speeches, letters to the editor and appeals to state officials, they are arguing that the tests were flawed -- first, because they were developed for Utah schools and based on the curriculum taught there, and second, because of a string of disruptive technical glitches when they were rolled out here.
The superintendents are challenging the state's plan to use the scores to give schools grades from A to F and to influence some teachersÃ¢€™ evaluations. Standing behind them are the Florida PTA, the state's School Boards Association, teachers and administrators.
The scores have not been released because state officials have not yet set grading standards, but the dispute has already boiled over. Under a preliminary recommendation, little more than half of Florida's schoolchildren would pass the new math and English exams in most grades. With some members of the Board of Education pushing for even tougher scoring, the grades could drop further.
"This is probably the most important issue facing all of us," Alberto M. Carvalho, the Miami-Dade County schools superintendent, said at a recent school board meeting. "The fight is not over. But I can tell you the state seems pretty adamant in moving forward as quickly as possible, even in the face of incomplete, inadequate, possibly corrupted, invalid and unreliable data."
Framing it as a battle over the future of accountability in schools, Mr. Carvalho added, "If there was ever a time to press the pause button, this is the time."
The state has already suspended most direct penalties associated with the new tests. StudentsÃ¢€™ scores will not be used to hold them back a grade, and school grades will not be used to punish failing schools.
But superintendents and others are angry that the state plans to move forward with the school grades at all, and to use student scores as a factor in some teacher evaluations. School leaders want the scores to be used simply as a baseline to better measure learning gains in next year's scores.
Other states have faced problems with new tests for the Common Core, the national guidelines for kindergarten through high school reading and math that more than 40 states adopted. Some, including Oregon, have issued a one-year moratorium on using the scores from those tests to rate schools and teachers.
In Nevada -- where, because of glitches, only 30 percent of students were able to complete the tests, a far higher incompletion rate than Florida's -- state officials suspended school ratings for the year. Many more states either suspended or, like Florida, eased the consequences of the tests, viewing this as a transition year.
For Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, and Republican-controlled Legislature, this yearÃ¢€™s clash is the latest over an accountability system that was pioneered in Florida by former Gov. Jeb Bush and has long served as a model for other states.
Last year, lawmakers and state officials here, like their peers in other states, were criticized over the adoption of the Common Core standards. But they were also faulted for increasing, little by little, the consequences tied to low or high test scores.
"I'm just frustrated as a parent," said Joseph Gebara, who has two children in public schools and is the head of the PTA for Miami-Dade County, the fourth-largest school district in the country. "In the state of Florida, you wonder, is anybody listening?"
State education officials and Republican lawmakers say that even though this year's scores on the test, formally called the Florida Standards Assessment, will be used to grade schools, those grades will not be used punitively. The grades, they say, are a crucial component of Florida's efforts to provide information to parents and make schools accountable, and are required by state law.
State officials bolstered their argument by pointing to a recent study by a test development and research group, Alpine Testing Solutions, that Governor Scott and the Legislature ordered after the test's chaotic rollout. The study found that the state could use the scores to draw general conclusions about groups, such as schools or teachers.
"I personally believe that it is important that we inform schools, principals, parents and teachers how their school is performing," said Pam Stewart, Florida's education commissioner. "Absent a school grade, we lose out on that momentum."
Mr. Bush created the school grading system in 1999. The grades are based both on student proficiency in yearly tests and on learning gains made over time. The reasoning was that, by assessing those gains, officials would not unfairly penalize schools with many low-income children or students still learning English -- groups that fare less well on standardized exams.
The grading system has widespread repercussions, affecting a school's popularity and fund-raising, and even housing prices.
In Mrs. Stewart's view, much of the consternation stems from the worry that student scores will fall this year because the new tests, still pegged in large part to Common Core standards, are more difficult than their predecessors.
"I think, in general, people have angst about the unknown," she said.
Others say this is just another salvo in the superintendentsÃ¢€™ long-running battle against school grades, which, lawmakers say, they have never liked. Superintendents disagree.
"Superintendents want accountability," said State Senator John Legg, the Republican chairman of the Committee on Education Pre-K-12. "They just don't want the transparency that comes with it."
But the superintendents say that because the tests this year were new, no comparable data exist, so schools cannot make a reliable yearly comparison. There is no baseline; the school grades will be based just on this year's scores, which is against the law, they said.
"Rich schools will get A's, and poor schools will get F's," said State Senator Bill Montford, a Democrat who is the head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
Though there will be no penalties for grades this year, the grade itself can become a punishment, a "scarlet letter," said Mr. Carvalho, the Miami-Dade County schools chief.
Superintendents also quote the Alpine validity study to reinforce their arguments. Although the study supported using the scores to draw some conclusions, it also determined that the testing lacked the "normal rigor and standardization" typically expected. It called the rollout "problematic" and said there were issues with "just about every aspect of the administration."
One problem was that the Utah exams were brought in so late that there was no time to test them in Florida. And while a panel here tried to match them to Florida standards, the effort was not entirely successful. In the language arts test, for example, 23 percent of the questions did not match precisely, the study said.
What is more, the online tests had numerous glitches. For example, many students could not log on. Others were kicked off the system midtest. Answers were not always saved. Some students could not take the test at all. State officials said only 1 percent to 5 percent of students had been affected, a figure disputed by the superintendents, who said the actual number was higher.
Rather than issue A to F grades, the superintendents said, the state should give all schools an I, for incomplete, and then use the test scores as a baseline for next year.
"We want to protect a system that, we believe, is mortally wounded," Mr. Carvalho said. "To proceed could further erode the public's confidence in an accountability system that, for a long time, was seen as a model."
New York Times