Six lawmakers call for review of civics test administration in three Florida counties

Seventh graders pore over issues in a newspaper during civics class at Gulf Middle School in New Port Richey.  [Times | 2012]
Seventh graders pore over issues in a newspaper during civics class at Gulf Middle School in New Port Richey. [Times | 2012]
Published June 28 2018
Updated June 28 2018

A group of conservative lawmakers has asked the Florida Department of Education to look into allegations that three school districts manipulated which students took the spring civics end-of-course exam to influence the state's school grading system.

The six legislators — Sen. Dennis Baxley and Reps. Jason Fischer, Michael Bileca,  James Grant, Bob Rommel and Jennifer Sullivan — repeated criticisms raised by members of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, an organization that formed to oppose the Florida School Boards Association's legal challenge of the state tax credit scholarship program.

Fischer, a one-time Duval County School Board member, is a former coalition member.

In a news release to selected media, the coalition contended that the Duval, Manatee and Polk districts held low-performing seventh graders out of taking the civics exam in order to boost their passing rates. (See reports from the Herald-Tribune, Florida Times-Union and Redefined for details.)

District officials explained they intended to have the students take the exam as eighth graders, after they are better prepared. State officials have confirmed there's nothing wrong with that approach.

But the six lawmakers suggested in a letter to education commissioner Pam Stewart that the "questionable testing practices" could undermine the state's testing and accountability system. They suggest without any detail that other districts might be participating in "these same shameful practices."

The lawmakers' underlying motive? It appears to be support of their recently created program that allows select charter schools to move into communities where the public schools have persistently low scores on state exams.

As they write in their list of questions to Stewart, "Some schools are employing these dishonest tactics specifically to game the school grading system, especially those schools seeking to avoid the implications of the Schools of Hope interventions. Others do it to unscrupulously collect school improvement funds every other year, while student achievement never actually improves. How will manipulation of the system and avoidance of accountability be addressed by your department?"

They also questioned the motivations of some school district leaders, using language similar to that used when they worked to change the certification rules for teacher unions.

The department has not responded to the letter, which you can read in full below (with thanks to AP reporter Gary Fineout for sharing):

Dear Commissioner Stewart:

It has come to our attention that allegations have been raised regarding Duval, Manatee and Polk County school districts potentially undermining the integrity of our state's public school accountability system through employing questionable testing practices on the state end-of-course exam in civics. 

While we should all celebrate increases in student achievement, particularly in civics, we must ensure the results are earned with integrity. Otherwise, as we are sure you would agree, we are doing a complete disservice to our children.

As reported by multiple Jacksonville media outlets, the districts are accused of restricting certain students from participating in the state end-of-course civics exam in an effort to artificially inflate their final school grades. Not only are these allegations alarming, but we are fearful there may be other districts engaging in these same shameful practices. 

As parents of public school students and taxpayers, we share skepticism of the three counties' testing practices with the public, and now we want to know more. In the interest of transparency of our public education system and the children it serves, we have the following questions for these districts and for your department:

1.                Were any students enrolled in a civics course during the 2017-18 school year prevented by any of these districts from taking the required Civics End-Of-Course exam? 

2.                When and how was it determined which students would sit for the exam and which ones would not? 

3.                Who at the district level made this determination?

4.                Some schools are employing these dishonest tactics specifically to game the school grading system, especially those schools seeking to avoid the implications of the Schools of Hope interventions. Others do it to unscrupulously collect school improvement funds every other year, while student achievement never actually improves. How will manipulation of the system and avoidance of accountability be addressed by your department?

5.                Are there ways FLDOE could penalize a school or district found guilty of these tactics by lowering its final grade and/or withholding any school grade improvement funding?

Upon receipt of your answers, we plan to work with you, your colleagues at the Florida Department of Education, the governor and our legislative colleagues to review and improve existing state testing policies to ensure these dishonest and unethical practices do not happen again. 

Florida's public schools have improved more than any other state in the last 20 years due in large part to A-F school grading and the transparency it brings to parents, taxpayers and the public. However, we will not see sustained growth if certain adults running the system are more committed to their own interests than the interests of the students they serve. 

We look forward to your response and appreciate your leadership and immediate attention to this matter. 

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