TAMPA — He called for a truce, a thaw, an end to the war.
Florida's education commissioner extended an olive branch to his superintendents Wednesday, seeking to defuse a summerlong row over delays and problems with this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
But no sooner had Eric J. Smith named a handful of district leaders to a Department of Education advisory panel, including those from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties — "so that you feel it is representing you and supporting you, not at war with you" — than some members renewed their complaints.
One, Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, suggested suspending or changing the high school grading formula before grades come out this fall due to anomalies. Others agreed, voicing complaints about this year's test and the state's march toward tougher academic standards.
Smith said he'd consider it, given the importance districts put on Florida's school grading system. When grades drop, districts can lose millions in school recognition money and superintendents can lose their jobs.
"I really don't care about school grades," he said. "But I know your survival in some cases depends on it."
Smith promised to respond by next week to superintendents' questions on high school grades. But he said he'd prefer to launch a statewide conversation about boosting teacher effectiveness.
"Because there are schools that I have been in where I have not seen instruction taking place," he said. "You have been in those buildings too."
But on Wednesday, during the annual gathering of the state's superintendents, everyone still wanted to talk about those tests.
The trouble began in the spring when the state announced delays in FCAT scores being processed by testing giant NCS Pearson. So far the state has fined the company around $15 million for the monthlong snag, and Smith said he plans to seek more money to pay for canceled teacher training or postponed reform efforts. And if Pearson can't prove they'll do the job perfectly next year, Smith said, he'll fire them.
But claims of anomalies in this year's test results — first raised by a group of superintendents led by Carvalho and Hillsborough's MaryEllen Elia — have raised deeper issues about the system Florida uses to evaluate students.
Alachua County superintendent Dan Boyd said the state's move to toughen math and science standards for high schools is coming at the expense of students in vocational and other programs. He predicted more dropouts and plummeting graduation rates in the years to come.
Ronald Blocker of Orange County warned that complaints over plunging school grades and rising standards could snowball into a broader challenge "from other people, other than the superintendents."
"I wouldn't want to be a high school principal now," said Duval superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals, voicing support for immediate action on the high school formula. "This could be one gesture that could help us, I think."
Smith, a former superintendent from North Carolina and College Board executive, said the pressures of dealing with Florida's testing problems have been fierce.
"This last summer has probably been one of the ugliest summers of my career," he said. "I really think the problems with the FCAT damaged some relationships. We've got to get it done together at the end of the day."
Still, he said Florida's recent gains on the SAT, Advanced Placement tests and other measures show it's on the right track.
"If it turns out at the end of the day your commissioner is the problem, I'm sure I'll get the signals and read the tea leaves, and I'll be happy to step aside for somebody that can do the job," Smith said. "But I do think we're doing the right job. I think we're fighting over the right issues."
And Elia said she was reassured by what she heard.
"Obviously, he's moving it to the top of the agenda to review it," she said, referring to the high school grades issue.
"I'm very much in favor of raising standards," Elia added. "I just want them to be fair."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.