Romano: Once again, state education leaders fail this simple test

Ninth graders at Land O' Lakes High wait to get started on the new writing test that is part of the Florida Standards Assessments in 2015. [Courtesy of Pasco County School District]
Ninth graders at Land O' Lakes High wait to get started on the new writing test that is part of the Florida Standards Assessments in 2015. [Courtesy of Pasco County School District]
Published January 23 2018

Want to annoy an education leader in Florida?

Tell them they’ve turned your child’s school into an assembly line of tiny test takers. Tell them innovation and imagination and excitement are rapidly disappearing in favor of teaching to the test.

And when they deny it, tell them to watch a video of themselves.

Because the Florida Board of Education meeting last week was a disturbing example of spineless bureaucrats and out-of-touch appointees unwilling to understand the problem in front of them.

In this particular case, they were demanding that Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins get rid of four principals at struggling elementary schools.

Eakins explained there were extenuating circumstances. He explained that other reforms had been put in place, and early signs indicated the plans were working. He explained that he wasn’t afraid of firing principals, and had already replaced leaders at eight of 17 other struggling turnaround schools.

To which several board members basically said:

Yeah, but the test scores.

It is all they understand. It is all they care about. And their zealous obsession with standardized tests will continue to make public schools less and less attractive and effective in Florida.

If you doubt that, just think of the real-world implications of what happened at that meeting.

If nothing matters but the test scores, what do you think the rest of the principals in the district are going to do? They’re going to crack the whip on teachers and tell them to get those test scores higher or they’ll all be fired. And so the teachers abandon all nonessential lesson plans and focus on the tests.

And your child’s school becomes a sweat shop of test takers. No nuance, no exploration, no hope of enticing a student with something different. Just a narrow focus on one state assessment.

Now, this isn’t some blind defense of those four principals. I’ve never met or talked to any of them. I have no idea whether they are outstanding or sadly incompetent.

But the point is, neither do the Board of Education members.

They don’t seem to care that more than 90 percent of the students at those four schools are classified as economically disadvantaged, which happens to be the most reliable predictor of test scores. And they don’t care that enrollment numbers have been adjusted to relieve the pressure at the schools, or that low-performing teachers have been replaced.

They don’t care that Eakins is closest to the situation, and he thinks the current plan has the best chance for success.

Instead, they want to upend four schools in the middle of the academic year because it makes the board members look like they’re being responsive.

They say this as if qualified principals can be found sitting around a nearby Starbucks. Of Hillsborough’s 50 most economically disadvantaged elementary schools, Eakins has already replaced 27 principals in the past three years. Some were fired, some retired, some left for schools in wealthier neighborhoods.

The point is it requires special people willing to take on a more difficult challenge at a struggling school, especially under the threat of being fired if test scores don’t rebound.

If Florida is so committed to these assessments, perhaps we should come up with a competency test for state Board of Education members.