For several weeks, superintendents and educators around the state have puzzled over this year's FCAT scores, trying to understand a widespread and dramatic decrease in learning gains. The decreases hit elementary schools the hardest, resulting in more than 300 elementary schools statewide (33 percent of the state's total) experiencing a drop in their school grade. The decreases cannot be explained by normal fluctuations.
As soon as I noticed the problems in June, I called Education Commissioner Eric Smith. He promised to look into it. Then I learned that some of my fellow superintendents were seeing the same things, indicating a larger problem. After we sent a formal letter, Commissioner Smith hired two firms to address the issues, but many questions remain unanswered. It's time to put this issue in perspective and, if possible, put it behind us. I and my fellow superintendents are offering recommendations for moving forward.
On some levels, this controversy is of a highly technical nature. It involves discussions of test construction, the measurement of learning gains and statistical variations. Yet, the issue is simple: We need to ensure that the tests we give our students, and the system we use to calculate school grades and judge our schools and teachers, is accurate and reliable. This is especially important in Hillsborough County where we are involved in a ground-breaking project that relies on various assessments to measure student and teacher performance.
This issue has played itself out publicly, which is appropriate, given what is at stake. But there is a danger of eroding public confidence in the cornerstone of Florida's school accountability system. I certainly don't want that, having been an outspoken proponent of school accountability my entire career.
In conversations with several superintendents and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents we have agreed on several recommendations to help us move forward.
1. DOE needs to respond to each of the questions and concerns raised by school districts. The answers to the questions — regarding learning gains and test design — will help form the basis for the state to make improvements for next year and beyond.
2. The state should establish a "technical oversight committee” made up of educators and district-level, university and private sector testing experts, to review testing construction procedures, discuss issues of concern and make recommendations.
For instance, it has been suggested that the state needs to recalibrate the measurement for learning gains. As students improve academically it becomes more difficult to demonstrate such gains. So, a school where students have reached a high level of proficiency will be penalized for not demonstrating learning gains, which is a large part of the school grades calculation. This group would have the expertise to fix that problem.
3. The state must bring back a norm referenced test to enable us to make real comparisons. A norm-referenced test (NRT) is one that provides comparisons to students across the nation, and establishes norms for student performance. For years, Florida used an NRT to confirm the results of our own FCAT. It was invaluable when Florida experienced problems with Florida's third-grade reading scores in 2006. The norm referenced test provided a comparison that revealed a very real problem, and the state found a solution.
Despite warnings from superintendents, Florida discontinued the NRT two years ago as a cost-savings measure. It's time to bring it back.
4. The Florida Association of District School Superintendents should have a representative who attends each meeting of the state Board of Education and has a place on the board agenda. That representative could provide valuable perspective to the state board on PreK-12 education.
We believe these steps will help restore public confidence in an accountability system that superintendents embrace. Florida's school accountability system is a model for the nation and has played a key role in increasing student achievement. We must restore public confidence.
One of the auditors who reviewed the test results wrote that "test scores … are not perfect." That's true.
However, with so much riding on this test, I will say to the testing companies and to Commissioner Smith the same thing that I tell our teachers, principals, and my staff: We need to do better.
I and my fellow superintendents pledge to Commissioner Smith that we and our staffs will do anything we can to help answer the questions, and help make FCAT and Florida's school accountability system better, more accurate, and more worthy of confidence. I urge Commissioner Smith to embrace our recommendations, so we can move forward together.
MaryEllen Elia is superintendent of Hillsborough County schools.