A weekend interview with Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia
To secure a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind requirements, Florida had to adjust its school grading formula. When the discussion on proposals arose, many concerns emerged about the way the state planned to treat students in special education programs, and those still learning English. The State Board of Education asked for a task force to investigate ways to include these students as the federal government desired, but also without hurting those students or the schools in the process. Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia was named to that task force. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the recommendations that came forth.
I wanted to ask you about the task force on ESE and ELL. I wasn't clear as to whether the work was done yet.
No. I don't think the work is concluded. We received an e-mail from the commissioner ... They presented the materials to the State Board. Based on that he will be moving forward on recommendations. But there were three basic recommendations that hopefully they will think about. We spent a lot of time working on it. I hope that happens.
What are the three things?
The task force was in favor of coming up with an approach that would allow students that are both ELL and ESE to be included in the grade fomulation. ... We want to put full inclusion in for our exceptional education and ELL. So we need a gains calculation to look at the amount of gains a student makes beyond the expected gain. So if you're looking at the gain scores, for instance, and we have in our state grading system a increase in the gain portion, if a student makes more than the expected gains for levels 4 and 5. The proposal was to look at a differentiated gain for levels 1 and 2 that would support exceptional ed students and ELL students - a number of whom make up the level 1 and 2's - so they would make up an additional fraction of a gain. That's one of them. Another one had to do with the Florida Alternative Assessment. We were very specific in saying that needed to be reviewed carefully for the determination of growth with that. The FAA levels, particularly levels 1-3, needed to be more closely gradiated so that there would be a differentiation of growth. ... Somehow in the English language learners portion, the CELLA, which is giving an indication of proficiency, should be factored in whether a student score counts.
I understand the point is that you are trying to get the students accounted for, not just in how they perform but also taking into account that they have further to go.
Do you feel like that's where you have gotten? Or are you not there yet?
I think the committee's recommendations are clear. ... I believe that these recommendations are meeting the requirements of the federal rule by including all students, and with a very clear rationale on an existing piece of our formula using that same rationale for the students who are in levels 1 and 2. In doing that I think we absolutely meet the requirements. Of course, I am not the federal official reviewing it. But that is a very strong argument that we include all students, and we include them appropriately.
Do you think the State Board is going to agree with it?
I don't know. I think they were receptive when I presented at the State Board meeting on Monday. ... They have a lot of review to go through with the staff. ... I didn't at any point get the impression that this wasn't going to be reviewed very carefully by the State Board and the commissioner.
Is this worth the waiver? I mean, is the waiver worth the effort?
What it does is, it allows us to have a single system of accountability. As you are well aware, there is always confusion in the state when we don't have that. Having a federal rule for accountability and state rule for accountability is really counter-productive, and we should work to meet the requirements of the waiver and put all students in the accountability system in Florida. ...
You said it needs more work still. What more work do you think this needs?
It's not our work. I think the task force did a commendable job of bringing up a number of issues and really talking through them and coming up with recommendations. I think the State Board obviously has to ingest all that. They weren't privy to all our conversations. They got voluminous information about the comments that were made, and the arguments and positions and recommendations. Based on that, they need to get input from the DOE in Florida, and they have to get feedback from the feds. At that point in time, they should have information to be able to make decisions. I certainly think that the recommendations that came from the task force help and support a strong accountability system that is fair for all students, particularly our exceptional ed students and our ELL population. I think they should be taken seriously, and I anticipate that happening.
How is this going to affect the kids and their families if this gets done the way you say it should be done?
That was a very important component and a key part of the discussion that I was part of with the exceptional ed subcommittee. We very specifically wanted to make sure that this was a positive support for students and families in schools, and that it was supportive of the hard work that teachers do at the school sites.
So the students won't feel it, and the teachers won't either, in terms of their evaluations and their pay rates and so forth?
This is not necessarily a huge issue for the teachers. But it is for the schools and for the general accountability that is going to be put in place as a result if the waiver from the federal government is approved. That really deals with schools and this clearly will support the inclusion of ELL and exceptional ed students across the board, and it will support the hard work of teachers and administrators to make them successful at the school site. And I think that's a very important component.
Is there anything more we should look for in this discussion?
I think it's extremely important to recognize that all students are individuals. If we've identified specific situations with students in exceptional ed or in ELL that put them, their teachers and families at a different pace in learning than other students, we need to recognize that within the accountability system, and we need to make the accountability system work for them, and not the other way around. It's very important for us to have a fair approach, recognizing challenges that students have and then supporting them to make sure they are successful.