Superintendents: Tallahassee has broken Florida's school grading system

Math teacher and Math Department Chairperson Diana Keller, left, helps students Alicia Velazquez, 18, and Clint Daynard, 16, both of St. Petersburg, during a Liberal Arts Math class at Lakewood High School. [SCOTT KEELER   |   TIMES]
Math teacher and Math Department Chairperson Diana Keller, left, helps students Alicia Velazquez, 18, and Clint Daynard, 16, both of St. Petersburg, during a Liberal Arts Math class at Lakewood High School. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]
Published Sept. 26, 2015

TAMPA — In a stinging statement, Florida's school superintendents said Friday they have "lost confidence" in the state's education accountability system and are calling for an extensive review of the many changes lawmakers and state officials have made in recent years.

"We have witnessed the erosion of public support for an accountability system that was once a model for the nation," the statement said.

"It's time to pause and review the accountability system itself," state Sen. Bill Montford, CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, told the Tampa Bay Times.

Superintendents now "question whether they can support a system they believe has gone off the tracks," he said. "Let's get back on track."

The statement made clear that school district leaders have not been swayed by Education Commissioner Pam Stewart's defense that the system is working well.

They called on the Florida Department of Education to not issue 2015 school grades while a review of the system takes place. The problem, they said, was last spring's flawed rollout of new tests based on new academic standards. Scores from those tests have been called into question by a validity study released this month.

Stewart has said the study confirmed that the new tests accurately measure students' mastery of state standards and can be used to set school grades and help evaluate teacher performance. But the superintendents reject that interpretation.

Stewart's office responded to the superintendents' statement, saying the state would proceed as planned with using this year's scores. "The department will continue to follow the law, which requires school grades," said director of communications Meghan Collins.

Montford, a former superintendent in Leon County, said if Stewart insists on releasing grades, "The schools should be given an incomplete, because that's what it is."

He repeated concerns that the state lacks data to calculate year-to-year learning gains, as the law requires for setting the grades.

Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins said it would be unfair to grade schools without capturing learning gains, especially hard-won academic growth at high-needs schools. "You are basically dismissing so many hardworking teachers who are working with our students every single day," he said.

While the superintendents' statement uses strong language, it has no official weight and its impact on lawmakers and state officials remains to be seen. Working in the superintendents' favor is their unified stance and their role as key players who actually implement state accountability measures on the ground.

The superintendents also called Friday for the Florida Board of Education to set test passing levels, known as "cut scores," without regard to the state's performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That test is taken by a small sampling of students and is not designed to give results at the student or school level, according to its own website.

The superintendents association arrived at its position after nearly eight hours of discussion over two days. Sixty-three of 67 superintendents attended the sessions at the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza, hunkering down over laptops until about 11 a.m. Friday.

As they left the meeting, they said the time had come to take an even firmer stand than the ones they have made in the past. The group has previously urged the DOE not to use this year's test results, noting members' skepticism that schools were ready for the major transition.

"We have a professional and moral responsibility to do what's right for our students, our teachers and the community," Broward County superintendent Robert Runcie said. "The position we're taking reflects that."

Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego added, "The association is trying to address the concerns we're hearing at school boards across the state."

The Florida Education Association, representing the state's teachers, also weighed in, saying the testing system was in "collapse" and calling it a "house of cards."

FEA president Andy Ford said many groups were "united in calling for a sufficient timeout that would allow for an orderly transition to realign and revamp Florida's accountability system."

Montford stressed that the superintendents are not looking to end accountability. They want to see the system repaired before it loses all credibility, he said.

Superintendents "have been there. They have taken a lot of criticism from parents and other professionals because of their support and participation in it," he said. "Superintendents in Florida have reached a point where they cannot support the accountability system as it is moving forward."

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.