A weekend interview with Colleen Wood, executive director of Save Duval Schools
As Florida legislative and administrative leaders have pushed the envelope on the state's education accountability programs, a growing group of parents opposed to the methods being employs has been pushing back. They're taking advantage of what they see as miscues on topics such as parent trigger and, most recently, FCAT testing, to generate more support. Three organizations have taken the lead in forming and broadcasting the message. Save Duval Schools is among them. Executive director Colleen Wood spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her group's effort to challenge Florida's "reform status quo."
You've been out there really pushing for the state to take a new look at testing. Tell me a little bit about your concerns.
Our concern with the focus on the high-stakes nature of the testing in Florida is that at some point the tests are used less to tell us what we are doing right and more to say what we are doing wrong, what kids aren't getting. And it's just a snapshot. We know that what kids are learning can't be measured - nor can a teacher's teaching - by one test on one day. It could be a part of it. But it really shouldn't be the only thing. And we've all been supportive. Parents have been supportive of standardized testing. And then we started to question things, when there were a little few hiccups along the way in the past year or two. But this FCAT writing debacle is what really shone a light on how easily a test that should be reliable can be used in a different way. And what happened with FCAT Writes is just unacceptable.
What in your view was the bad part about it? The fact that they were asking them to be scored in a different way? Or what?
The real failure in that was a failure in leadership at the DOE to communicate with the districts. As a parent, I expect that if you're going to change the standard by which my child is to be measured, then my child's teachers need to be prepared for that. And the Department of Education, the commissioner's idea of communicating with the districts, was one letter on July 15 and one meeting in October. And that was with instructional coaches. It wasn't with the actual writing teachers. And the teachers are preparing throughout the summer … their curriculum, their lesson plans. They've mapped out the year. They don't go in kind of willy nilly in October and decide they're going to change the way they teach writing. So that I believe was a huge failure that was unfair to children and to teachers.
The other piece of that is, if we honestly want to encourage great writing and creative writing, we have to recognize that no child learns to write in the fourth grade. That is not when it starts. It starts in kindergarten, and for many it starts in prekindergarten and in home. … So if you truly want to raise the standard and ramp up the expectation, then you have to phase it in in a way that makes sense, that gives teachers in fourth grade … students who are coming to them a couple of years in the new way. … And a very simple thing you do is change the structure of the test. If the test itself is not designed to trick children and you want to see their best writing, then you give more than 45 minutes, you don't have to give them just one prompt. If the idea is to see how good a writer the child is, then give them two prompts to pick from where they might have a little more creativity, or connect more. Because everyone connects with different things. And especially this year. The prompt itself was absurd, about a camel.
Well, I know kids who thought it was great, and kids who thought it was confusing. I guess it depends on where you go to school and what you know.
And that's it. What you just said. The camel prompt for kids who have an incredible imagination, or who have read books about camels, or seen one at a zoo … it might be a great prompt. But the idea is not to come up with one prompt that every child can identify with. You should be trying to offer several prompts for children to pick from, because you're not trying to trick them to see if they know the subject. You're trying to find out if they can write well.
What do you think about these new results on FCAT reading and math? We got the results for third grade, and the percentages are different and so are the standards for scoring. Then they're telling us, 'If we had used this year's standards on last year's results, it would have been generally the same.' I keep saying, 'But you didn't use this year's standards last year.' …
They're calling into question the very validity of this information. Because what does that matter what I would have gotten last year if the standards were different last year? This year alone there have been I believe 18 changes to our accountability system. … My question is, what are you trying to prove? Because if I change the standards fast enough and often enough, I can make anyone look like a failure. We hear often that they are going to raise the standards so our children can compete in a global marketplace. I raise the standards for my children of what I expect of them, but I back it up. And the state seems content to raise the standards and then not back it up with the resources, with the professional development or with the communication with the districts so that they can help children to reach those standards.
So how do you think the state should proceed? Or do you think it's too late for them to do anything?
It's funny. I think you have to be careful what you ask for. What I would have said to that question at the beginning of the week is that the commissioner and his executive staff and the Department of Education should talk to parents in the state of Florida and find out our experiences. Not just try to convince us of something, but really listen. And then, lo and behold, the DOE this week launches this campaign to talk to parents. And it's having meetings around the state on Memorial Day weekend. So you're coming Memorial Day weekend, when our kids have a day off of school, to talk to parents about FCAT. It's a little late, and it's a time when it doesn't seem like you're going to get a lot of parent participation, on a national holiday.
How are you galvanizing people?… Is this the beginning of a large scale movement?
I think what you're seeing is more and more parents standing up and saying, 'This is not acceptable, and I want to have a voice in the process.' Our grassroots groups are trying to provide that opportunity for parents. … It's beyond being an advocate for them in schools. Now we have to talk to policy makers and legislators, and that can be kind of challenging when you haven't done it before. But I think you are going to see more and more people saying the status quo in Florida is reforms that aren't working, and we just keep sticking with them. But they now have become the status quo. I think you're going to see more and more parents say, 'Enough.'
Aren't some of them working? We have seen the NAEP scores and national test results that show Florida is improving.
Yes. I think there are some reforms that are working. The problem is we seem to be more attached to the concept of reform than actual results that come from them. Increasing rigor in a classroom is great. … But when the assessment tool is questionable that we are using, the FCAT, and the score from that determines whether our children can go into that advanced course, when we repeatedly have phone calls and e-mails from parents who are distraught because their child, who is in advanced courses and an AP program has missed the FCAT reading cutoff again - they are highly successful children who may not test well - that's not an accurate assessment. That is not a reform that is working well. I will hear some of the stakeholders say, 'That doesn't happen to a lot of kids.' I beg to differ. It happens to a lot more than we know of. And for those children that it happens to, it doesn't matter if they're the only one.
Do you think the opt-out movement is going to take hold?
I don't know. It might if parents don't feel their voice is being considered. And if we continue to see things like the FCAT writing. And if parents continue to hear that 'We're going to raise standards and children will rise to it' as they see their media centers being closed, and they see no money for science labs yet their child is expected to be proficient in science experiments. These are things that parents will only take for so long.