A weekend interview with ...
... MaryEllen Elia, Hillsborough County schools superintendent. Elia has advocated reforms in the FCAT system, and now she serves on the panel advising the Department of Education about the test. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her views on the review of the accountability system.
JS: I'm interested in knowing what your expectations are of the committee.
ME: A number of people are on it. A number of superintendents, people from DOE and, most importantly, people from other groups that have been asked to become part of the review committee for the review of FCAT specifically third grade right away, because of the issues related to the third grade testing this year, but also in the larger scope looking at issues that need to be reviewed relative to the FCAT.
JS: What kind of issues do you see as being most pertinent?
ME: The issues related to the cut-off scores, particularly for high school, and looking at those to make sure that they are in line with the cut-off scores for the other grades. That is a particularly important thing because you have a child who very possibly comes into the ninth grade and they've been a Level 3 student and all of a sudden they're a Level 2 student. There's a mandate for us to to address the particular deficiencies that they have. So we have to align all of those so we have a smooth transition of students as they move from grade 1 through 12, and our assessment program the FCAT and the cut-off scores and alignment are appropriate at each level.
JS: Do you get a sense that the department is going to listen to that argument?
ME: I have been very pleased with the openness of this process so far. I personally have talked to people in Tallahassee, and I feel like the department is taking an appropriate position in reviewing and being willing to review all of the aspects of Florida's accountability system. And I think that's a very important thing. Florida has relative to the other states and excellent accountability system, and we need to make sure that we maintain a very credible system. To do that it is incumbent upon the Department of Education to constantly be reviewing. And this is all part of that ongoing process. We have some things over time that have been ongoing issues and they're going to be addressed.
JS: What are some of the other ones?
ME: The issues relating to the bottom quartile is an important one. We have to look at the appropriateness of that.
JS: What does that mean?
ME: Well, you have what's considered the bottom quartile in a school. The differences in schools and populations are not reflected in that. So every school looks at its own bottom quartile of students and has to have growth with those students. In fact every school has a different look to it for the bottom quartile. We have to look at whether that's an appropriate, very important cell in the grading system. And we have to look at alignment of the grading system with other assessments that are done. National assessments and other ways that are out there to look at schools and their success. It may be that as we look at all this, we attest that the system is good. But what I think you're going to find is that, as we've gone through this over the last eight, nine years, it's very possible that there are some things that need to be looked at very closely, recommendations made and changes be approved. I believe that the Department of Education is willing to do that.
JS: Do you have any other recommendations?
ME: ... My real recommendation is that we look at all parts of the system and we review it for appropriateness and how it is used in the state as an assessment. There is not a single thing. There are a number of different areas that I think are going to be a part of it. As we're doing that there may be other areas that come up that need to be reviewed. This is not going to be a short process. The review for the third grade is not a quick fix. And I am anxious to hear what the time line might be because we are facing issues related to the federal mandate of No Child Left Behind. And those have very specific dates that require contact with parents, etc.
JS: Isn't that July 1?
ME: Well, it is. And we're trying to come up with a plan that we will be able to turn around the data we get as quickly as possible to be able to do what is necessary and required in the federal plan.
JS: Has there been any discussion of changing those deadlines because of this extenuating circumstance?
ME: That was not a topic of the meeting. But the anticipation would be that we will get something in time for us to turn that around. ...
JS: I've heard a lot of people say that this would have never happened under the past administration. Do you think this discussion is happening because of changes in Tallahassee? ... Why do you think it has taken so long to have this conversation knowing the issues that have cropped up over time?
ME: Every year as you're aware, and particularly this year, changes have occurred in the scoring rubric. And those of us who have been working this and knowing the rules over time have indicated over a period of time this would have to be addressed. I do believe that we have a very open Department of Education reviewing this now, and I feel comfortable that there will be some recommendations and solutions, both short term and long term, related to it. ... Next Wednesday is going to be an important day in getting a feel for where we're going.