Florida’s accountability plan needs more work, federal government says

The state's Every Student Succeeds Act plan said Florida is an English-only state.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with members of the faculty and students during a tour of the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing and Health Sciences’ Simulation Teaching and Research Center at Florida International University in Miami, on Thursday, April 6, 2017. (Associated Press)
Published Dec. 21, 2017
Updated Dec. 21, 2017

Florida's plan to change its education accountability and testing system as little as possible, despite changes to federal rules, ran into a roadblock this week.

The U.S. Department of Education told the state that it can't simply adopt rules that run counter to the Every Student Succeeds Act, particularly without seeking waivers.

That includes the way it approaches tests in languages other than English.

The Florida Department of Education initially said it would ask for permission to work around sections of the act it did not agree with. In its final submission, though, the FLDOE skipped the waiver requests, instead just writing its intentions into its plan and claiming it met the standards.

[Related coverage: A little more on Florida's ESSA plan]

After a careful review, deputy assistant secretary Jason Botel wrote, the federal department is requesting clarifying information to ensure Florida meets the letter of the law. A nine-page table of areas of concern detailed the changes requested.

Perhaps most notably, the federal department touched upon an issue that Florida civil rights activists have decried — the state's position on tests in Spanish or other languages for students still learning English.

The state plan said, "Florida's constitution does not provide for the delivery of governmental services in languages other than English. In fact, Florida's constitution specifies English as the official state language."

Not so fast, the U.S. department responded.

Federal laws on testing "require FDOE to provide a definition of languages other than English that are present to a significant extent in the participating student population and identify the specific language(s) that meet this definition, which must include at least the most populous language other than English spoken by the State's participating student population."

That move for a revised definition could lead to a future request that Florida make "every effort" to develop tests in the most used other native languages in the state's schools, as the USDOE's regulations require.

The letter also took issue with the state's plan to exempt certain eighth graders from inclusion in assessing middle school math performance, and challenged the state's method of accounting for demographic subgroups in measuring achievement.

Rosa Castro-Feinberg, a former Miami-Dade County School Board member, has worked closely with civil rights activists to push for changes to the Florida plan. She expressed satisfaction Thursday that the federal government listened to their concerns.

"The Florida legislature should take note and act to ensure that the plan meets the requirements of the law," she said.

Education Week has suggested that the disagreement over the plan could put U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a "tough spot," as she has spent a large amount of time touting Florida's accountability and school choice systems. She's also hired several people connected with former governor Jeb Bush to her staff.

Botel gave the state until Jan. 4 to submit revisions.

"We encourage you to continue to engage in consultation with stakeholders, including representatives from the Governor's office, as you develop and implement your State plan," he wrote.

UPDATE: Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart has asked for an extension beyond Jan. 4 to complete and submit the ESSA plan revisions. The U.S. Department of Education has acknowledged receipt of the request.

Read the state plan and the federal letter for more details.

[Note: The section on test languages and the post headline have been modified to more clearly represent the department's instructions.]