Florida Board of Education resists educator-parent pressure on test scores

TALLAHASSEE -- Members of the Florida Board of Education want Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to provide them with more data to help them set passing marks for the new statewide assessment, which continues to attract backlash from superintendents, teachers and parents statewide.

Standing by the Florida Standards Assessments and in an effort to prove the test's increased difficulty, Stewart has recommended "cut scores" that are generally higher than the state's previous standardized test, which she said "demonstrates that the trend in Florida has been to increase the rigor" of exams.

State board members, during their monthly meeting Wednesday in Orlando, signaled the proposed cutoff scores aren't tough enough. they want Stewart to give them information about how cut scores are defined for the National Assessments of Educational Progress, as well as for other standardized tests in states that lead the nation in educational assessment, such as New York or Massachusetts. They also want her to suggest cut scores that are within 10 points of NAEP's, in the interest of potentially making FSA's passing marks more competitive with national standards.

In a coincidence of timing with the board's meeting, the NAEP results were also released Wednesday. Statewide, performance was flat or lower in all tested areas.

Board Vice Chairman John Padget was particularly upset at the state's eighth-grade math results in the NAEP, which he called a "disaster." Florida ranked 45th out of 50 states. If the board adopted Stewart's recommendation as is, more students could "pass" the FSA than achieve "proficiency" on the NAEP, which creates a disconnect in what the state expects from its students, he said.

"We have to revisit cut scores and recommendations, legislative priorities and budget priorities and figure out what more we have to do to assist our schools and teachers," Padget said. "The present results are not acceptable to me."

As members of the State Board of Education work toward setting passing marks for the FSA, superintendents, teachers and other education groups renewed their passionate call for state officials to throw out results from the test's debut last school year and not use them in evaluating schools and teachers.

The State Board of Education heard almost five hours of testimony from stakeholders Wednesday but won't vote on adopting new cut scores until January.

Several members of the "Opt Out" movement condemned standardized testing altogether, while representatives for teachers and superintendents urged the board to use the FSA results simply as a baseline to build off in future years. They repeated their request to have the state issue "incomplete" grades for schools in 2014-15, since the FSA results can't be compared with the previous FCAT 2.0 for the purposes of assessing changes in student performance.

"Grading schools without including all the components is not an accurate reflection of the work of our students or our teachers. It's not valid and it's certainly not fair," said Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, who spoke on behalf of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

"I sincerely do not understand Florida's reluctance to hit the pause button for one year," Browning added. "Let's use 2015 as a true baseline and not issue school grades or make decisions based on that data."

Stewart has forged ahead with using the exam results, after a Legislature-mandated, independent review of the Florida Standards Assessments found that the exam results could be used to evaluate students collectively in schools, districts and statewide, but they couldn't be used to assess individual students.

The administration of the first FSA last spring was marred by technical glitches, including a cyber attack. Because of that -- and because some of the questions were based not entirely on Florida's education standards -- superintendents, teachers and education groups continue to criticize the test.

Stewart and the Department of Education do have support, though, from the state's largest business organization. Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson said, in the interest of economic development and a skilled workforce for future jobs, the state education board should move ahead with issuing school grades.

"Please don't settle for incomplete and please don't put our students on pause," Wilson said. "Put the long-term interest of Florida ahead of the short-term interest of adults."

School grades will be calculated after the cut scores for the FSA are adopted in January. Stewart said she'd gather as much data as she could to provide board members before then in helping them make their decision about the cut scores. Her official recommendation won't change.

Cut scores are of particular significance in the third-grade English exam, the 10th-grade English exam and the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam. If students don't pass, they can't advance to fourth grade or, in the case of high school exams, graduate. Students taking the FSA last spring aren't harmed by that, because decisions about matriculation and graduation were already made over the summer.

The Board of Education sets cut scores whenever there is a new statewide assessment or whenever educational standards change. Board member Gary Chartrand said setting cut scores is "the single most important job this board has."

"We have to get them right," Chartrand said. "The school grading system -- we can deal with that after setting cut scores. We have a major responsibility to our kids and the state of Florida to get this right."