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For Florida superintendents, patience wears thin on school testing problems

Sen. Bill Montford says labeling schools without any growth data is “greatly disturbing.”
Sen. Bill Montford says labeling schools without any growth data is “greatly disturbing.”
Published Sep. 25, 2015

TAMPA — Florida's school superintendents are reconsidering their support for the state's education accountability system amid rising concerns over plans to use last spring's test results for school grades.

"The superintendents are united. They are of one opinion, that is they support high standards and high levels of accountability. But they see deterioration of the accountability system," state Sen. Bill Montford, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said Thursday.

"The question they have is, can they continue to support an effort that they have serious questions about?"

Sixty-three of the state's 67 superintendents spent nearly four hours Thursday considering their options. It was their first joint meeting since the release of an independent study that noted problems with "just about every aspect" of Florida's troubled rollout of new computerized tests early this year.

The superintendents have not been quiet about their displeasure.

They expressed their worries about the exams before students sat for the new Florida Standards Assessments, and again after reading the validity study.

Now, they're taking an even tougher look at what's going on at the Florida Department of Education.

Many superintendents are displeased with the department's unswerving intention to assign 2015 school grades using what they consider suspect data, and without enough information to show whether schools made gains — a key piece of the grading formula required in law.

"We're still evaluating the impact of the high-stakes FSAs on students, school grades and evaluations," Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego said. "We are trying to explore the impact it can have on the communities, sometimes a very negative impact."

A 100-minute question-and-answer session with Education Commissioner Pam Stewart at the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza did nothing to assuage their concerns.

Montford, D-Tallahassee, said the commissioner tried to justify issuing 2015 grades without growth data, and the superintendents were trying to determine whether her explanations hold up. He called it "greatly disturbing" to label schools based solely on student test proficiency, without considering where they started — something that's impossible with a new test.

"It's critically important we include student growth because that's what schools are about," Montford said.

Superintendents also raised questions about the state's plans to set new passing scores, known as "cut scores," for the FSAs, given the Florida Board of Education's pressure to make the scores higher than experts have recommended.

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If the outcome differs dramatically from the proposals of professionals who followed the state-designed process, Montford said, superintendents wonder, "Why have the process?"

Another concern centers on the many problems cited in the validity study, and how the state will fix them before the 2016 testing season. One problem is the state's use of test questions that were designed for students in Utah, not Florida.

Stewart declined to talk about her conversation with the superintendents, calling it private and saying it would be "inappropriate to discuss the details outside the meeting."

Montford said superintendents have "carried the water" for the state over many years in the implementation of the high-stakes accountability model. Their backing of the concept behind the system remains, he added.

But the time has come for district leaders to take a close look at the model and decide whether they can continue to back its current form, he said.

"We've got to be sure we give due thought to every aspect of the accountability system, not just school grades," Montford said. "This has far-reaching implications."

Grego anticipated the group might release a statement as early as today.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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