The senior member of Florida's State Board of Education called for more honesty in test score reporting Wednesday, just hours after the release of new nationwide data showing student performance had slipped in key areas.
Fourth- and eighth-grade scores in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress slid in Florida, after years of steady improvement. Yet the state Department of Education declared "Florida students shine" in its media release, pointing to subsets of positive data that obscured the overall picture.
Vice chairman John Padget, a onetime Monroe County superintendent, was unimpressed.
"The present results are not acceptable to me," he said, mainly referring to drops in eighth-grade scores that he deemed a "disaster."
In math, the percentage of Florida eighth-graders who scored "proficient" fell 5 percentage points since the NAEP was last administered in 2013. In reading, the proficiency rate in that grade dropped 3 points.
Padget took his criticism a step further during a related State Board discussion about using NAEP results to help set scores for the new Florida Standards Assessments, which were administered for the first time this year and will factor into how schools are graded.
He wanted a Level 3, or passing, to align more closely with what NAEP considered "proficient."
It's a call that former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education has mounted in the past couple of years.
"I think we have to be honest with (students) and be able to tell them where they are with the rest of the world," Padget said.
But Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, a strong accountability advocate herself, has pushed for the bar to be lower than what Padget wanted. She has recommended levels that would see more students passing than achieved proficiency on the national exam. She said a Level 4 on the state exams would be more akin to NAEP proficiency than a Level 3.
Padget said that if Stewart does not more closely tie her scoring recommendations to NAEP levels, "you've got one no vote come January." That's when the State Board is set to vote on the new scores.
Padget's hard-line stance caused consternation among his board colleagues, who shared his desire to set national standards for Florida's new tests but were wary of deviating from the state's monthslong process for setting scores.
Hundreds of educators, activists and experts reviewed the tests over several months and suggested passing scores, which Stewart looked over and modified. She told the board the department exceeded industry standards in its effort.
"I'm struggling with trying to change the process here," said board member Andy Tuck, a former Highlands County School Board member.
Board members, meeting in Orlando, had plenty of input from two distinct camps to inform their thinking.
Several parents in Florida's growing testing opt-out movement encouraged the board to scale back testing and the use of the results, instead restoring more flexibility to classroom teachers.
"My kids are completely bored because you continue to teach to this test," Orlando mom Pam DiMarzio told the board. "We are too busy teaching to this darned test, and it needs to stop."
Polk County teacher Wendy Bradshaw, who recently quit her job because of the state testing model, criticized a system that relies on "manipulated data," "cookie-cutter curriculum" and "flawed assessments."
They also heard from business leaders, who joined Bush's foundation in demanding "continued accountability and transparency" and passing scores that encouraged rigor.
"We either need to do it now, or we can share it with them when they come into my workplace and we tell them they're not qualified," said Susan Pareigis of the Florida Council of 100. "Align to NAEP."
Studies have shown that NAEP proficiency levels, while consistent, are also judgments.
Padget tried to make a motion requiring Stewart to revise her recommendation. But the board wasn't scheduled to take a vote, so members instead asked her to bring more information for them to compare her proposal to what other states do.
Board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey encouraged her colleagues take the best ideas from the many speakers.
It's "morally responsible" for the state to hold schools accountable for teaching every student, she said, and that means using some degree of testing. At the same time, she added, the state is equally responsible to make sure the school year does not revolve around assessment.
"Somehow, I believe we will be able to unite on common ground for what's best for our kids," she said.
Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.