Romano: Clean up student testing mess before imposing consequences

Published Oct. 25, 2014

Here is all you need to know about the absurdity of education in Florida:

For several months, dozens of school boards across the state have implored our leaders in Tallahassee to hit the brakes on high-stakes testing.

And then on Monday, a state senator stood before School Board members in Lake County and implored them to hit the brakes on high-stakes testing.

Get it?

Everyone seems to recognize that our educational model is broken, and yet nothing is being done to fix it. Lawmakers blame educators, educators blame lawmakers and our education commissioner waits with a rubber stamp in her hand.

Meanwhile, your children are being sacrificed like pawns in a game of political chess.

"We should be ashamed of ourselves for creating such a mess,'' Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, told the Lake board.

So how messy is it?

Well, local school districts are creating end-of-course exams that count for up to 30 percent of a student's grade and go a long way toward determining a teacher's evaluation. Yet many of those tests are still not written and teachers are unsure of the content so they can't be certain what they should actually be teaching.

And schools are still waiting for samples of the Florida Standards Assessment that is replacing the FCAT and will determine school grades as well as third-grade promotions. The assessments were field tested in Utah where students performed so poorly a majority of schools could receive D or F grades.

And no one is sure whether Florida's schools will have the technical proficiency for these new tests, which are largely computer-based.

Otherwise, everything is peachy.

"Agree or disagree with assessments in the past, they were at least implemented methodically,'' said Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego. "For some reason, we've abandoned that protocol. And I don't see or hear enough concern for the protection of our young children, especially our third-graders who are being impacted. And I have the same concerns with our teacher evaluations.

"We have to be aware of the possibility of significant collateral damage.''

The problem is not the new standards. And it is not the idea of accountability. The problem is the state raised the stakes absurdly high on year-end tests in 2011, and it created a domino effect that has completely undermined the educational landscape.

State Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, who chairs the education committee, agrees the 2011 legislation was too severe. But he says the law has since been amended to balance the needs of accountability and higher standards.

The state has agreed to pause the consequences tied to school grades in 2014-15 — although grades will still be given, schools will not face repercussions — and Legg said officials may extend that policy another year if necessary.

Third-graders, however, may still face retention this year if they do not pass a test educators in Florida have yet to even see.

"I do agree with concerns that, in some ways, we are flying blind on this,'' Legg said.

This is a problem. Potentially, a catastrophic problem.

School boards and superintendents agree. Teachers agree. The Florida PTA agrees. Even some lawmakers agree. But some folks in Tallahassee are obsessed with the idea they invented accountability, and so they refuse to budge.

Now, granted, the problem itself cannot be fixed overnight. It will take years to vet the new tests and establish baselines for success.

But that doesn't mean our leaders should be free to whistle merrily past school yards.

Gov. Rick Scott needs to protect students and teachers from being unfairly victimized while the state works out the kinks in this new model.

He needs to announce immediately that all — not some, but all — consequences of standardized tests are being suspended until we know what we are dealing with.

Anything less is an educational and moral failure.