Not all Florida school districts require a test score to promote third graders
As some parents head to Tallahassee today for a hearing on their lawsuit to stop Florida's third-grade retention law, it's instructive to take a look at how three contiguous school districts approach the issue at hand.
The parents' primary complaint has been that, once their children refused to take the state's spring reading test, their districts would not promote the students to fourth grade regardless of their classroom performance. That's despite the provisions in law that six "good cause" exemptions, including a portfolio, exist for third graders who have not scored Level 2 or higher on the test.
In Hernando County, where half of the plaintiffs send their children to school, the issue has been clear cut. District officials have remained steadfast that, without a test score, the students are not eligible for any of the statutory exemptions. The district's 2015-16 testing guidelines, posted on its website, state plainly, "Grade 3 students must have either a score on the statewide standardized assessment, FSA ELA, or a score on the alternative assessment, SAT/10 Reading Comprehension, to be eligible for the good cause exemptions."
In the complaint, the Hernando parents and grandparents stated their children received good grades in school, had no record of a demonstrated reading deficiency and yet were being retained "due to FSA scores" that they did not have.
"We have empathy and we understand," Hernando district spokeswoman Karen Jordan told the Gradebook. "But our organization has to follow the parameters of the Legislature that guide our work."
In Citrus County, just north of Hernando, district officials read the language quite differently. They consider students who did not pass the test or who did not have a score, for whatever reason, as eligible for the alternative methods of promotion. After all, said district accountability director Amy Crowell, they do not have a reading score of Level 2 or better, which is the state requirement for promotion to fourth grade.
To help the process, Citrus elementary schools create portfolios for all third graders, following the requirements set forth in state rule. The rule makes clear that portfolio materials must be selected by the teacher, be completed by students independently in class, and provide specific evidence that the student met Florida's standards for reading, including some multiple choice "items and passages."
"It is a series of assessments" taken throughout the school year, Crowell explained of the Citrus model. "Our teachers also use it to guide instruction. It does help them with what the students' needs are. It also helps with communicating with parents, letting them know if they are meeting the standards."
And, at the end of the day, it can provide a backup set of information for promotion. Elementary education director Scott Hebert said teachers have the option of adding other items to their student portfolios, but generally do not because they accept the system that's in place.
"It really, truly does reflect their students' knowledge," he said.
Though it sent mixed messages to districts early in the spring, the Florida Department of Education eventually made clear that the FSA should not be a gatekeeper to a third grader's promotion.
That's the position that Pasco County district leaders have adopted, as well. Pasco, just to the south of Hernando, also is a defendant in the lawsuit, but the plaintiff in the case has slightly different circumstances than the others. The child did take the FSA and miss a passing score. The father contends his child's report card, which showed passing grades, should suffice in earning promotion.
In emails to the Tampa Bay Times before the suit was filed, the parent said school officials told him they didn't "feel comfortable" promoting his child based on materials available to them. He also indicated he refused to have his child sit for more tests.
In recent weeks, the district has promoted dozens of third graders to the fourth grade, based on work completed throughout the school year, said Rayann Mitchell, director of teaching and learning.
"We've been signing portfolios all summer long," Mitchell said.
They've been using children's Independent Reading Level Assessment results, which were easily accessible in district computers. The standards-based system is coded so that a child entering third grade on grade level would be rated 3.0, while one ready for fourth grade would be at 3.99 or higher.
"We were able to document through IRLA whether a student was ready for fourth grade," Mitchell said. "It's approved by the state. And it's already something we were doing as a system, anyway."
Superintendent Kurt Browning said earlier this spring that he had heated conversations with DOE officials about whether students without state test scores could be considered this way. He eventually told principals to let all students -- even those who hadn't tested -- use the portfolio option.
"If teachers have evidence that a student who has refused to take the third grade ELA FSA should be promoted based on IRLA evidence documented through SchoolPace and other independent performance samples, then the student should not be required to take an alternate assessment or attend reading camp," Browning wrote.
As in Citrus, Pasco leaders made clear that students must have convincing evidence in their portfolios to earn promotion. Otherwise, they could take an alternate test, as also provided in law. If they refuse to take the alternate test, or to try to create a portfolio in summer school, they would likely be held back.
Crowley, the Citrus accountability director, suggested that how districts act boils down to how they interpret the statute. Some have said that students who refused to test have not made the effort to "participate" in testing, as the law calls for. Others put forth that the law only requires a score of Level 2 or higher, and students might not have a score for any number of reasons, including opting out, being absent, transferring in late or even being frustrated and giving up.
Districts can't know the reasons, Hebert said, so in Citrus, they treat all those students the same.
"I think we're doing what's best for kids," Hebert said. "It's all about the students."