Florida's education accountability system stands at a crossroad.
Its supporters remain committed to testing student knowledge and holding schools and teachers responsible for the results. They say the years-long endeavor has improved academic performance statewide, including among historically overlooked minorities.
"It is the right thing to do," said education commissioner Pam Stewart. "Students are at the forefront. They're the most important thing I consider every day."
But her department faces an increasingly vocal challenge amid surging concerns over the way state standards and tests have been altered in recent years. Even some solid accountability backers have broken ranks, saying they can't abide a system that changes so frequently, often without regard for classroom reality.
"I think we've reached a new level of frustration that is ubiquitous and universally felt throughout the state of Florida," said Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
Is the widening revolt enough to compel action?
The Florida Association of District School Superintendents has called for an overhaul to the system, as have the state PTA, school boards association, school administrators organization, and even many school district statisticians. Their voices have joined the routinely combative Florida Education Association, as well as activists fighting back against Common Core standards and high-stakes testing.
"You're always going to have some number of people who hate testing. That's not the make-or-break for the Department of Education in Florida," said Rick Hess, education policy director at the American Enterprise Institute. But "if they're losing superintendents across the state, if you've got parent groups upset, if editorial boards and legislators are asking tough questions, that's going to turn things topsy turvy."
Check. Check. And check.
Representatives from some of those groups began raising red flags three education commissioners ago.
The Florida School Boards Association adopted a resolution in 2012 urging state officials to reexamine the system. Then-commissioner Gerard Robinson said their concerns ignored reality and he dismissed them, allowing the issues to fester.
As the Department of Education solidified plans to move away from the FCAT and its underlying standards, superintendents took the lead. While supporting accountability, they warned the State Board of Education at meeting after meeting that teachers and students needed time to adapt.
They asked for a pause and a realignment, which they said was necessary after years of multiple revisions that left even some past State Board members questioning the system's value.
Since 2008, the state had made more than three dozen changes in the school grading formula. It raised passing scores for writing in 2012 and then abruptly lowered them after performances looked shaky — and it set up a "safety net" to prevent grades from plummeting as the board increased passing levels on all its tests.
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During this period, state officials moved from the FCAT to the upgraded FCAT 2.0, also abandoning some high school FCAT tests in favor of end-of-course exams. They replaced the Sunshine State standards with the Common Core, and then tweaked them to be the "Florida Standards."
Then, with new standards coming online, Florida took the lead in a national consortium to develop a new test.
The state left the initiative, though, after conservatives branded the partnership a meddling arm of the federal government.
The next move — a quick turnaround to create and implement the Florida Standards Assessments — paved the way for this latest round of discontent.
Problems last spring with computerized FSA testing, combined with concerns over the way the questions were chosen, led lawmakers to call for an independent validity study. The resulting report raised so many questions for Florida's 67 superintendents that they finally balked.
The other groups quickly followed suit.
"I'm done playing the game," said Duval County school superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who once oversaw the state's accountability system. "I feel the department and the leadership in Florida have gone so far that it is now, in the short term and the long term, going to hurt children."
He criticized the state's handling of test passing scores, saying they've been manipulated to undermine public schools by inappropriately suggesting failure. He blasted the state's decision to leave the testing consortium, contending it thwarted the premise of Florida having common standards and measurement with peers nationally.
And he echoed many others who bemoan the state's plan to assign school grades for 2015 without being able to measure improvement over last year.
"Giving letter grades without learning gains is an insult to every educator who has ever worked with a student who has entered a grade below grade level," Vitti said. "It contradicts the spirit of education."
Other states have frozen high-stakes consequences while making similar transitions, noted Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego, a former state K-12 chancellor. Key reform groups such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute actually recommend such a move.
"An accountability pause for everybody makes sense during this transition," Fordham Institute president Michael Petrilli said, referring in part to teacher evaluations and school grades.
Florida still plans to factor 2015 test results into teacher evaluations, though it has reduced their impact on school intervention and student progression plans.
Pausing a year wouldn't mean giving upon accountability, Grego said. "All we are saying is, let's do it right so we gain the confidence of everyone."
Commissioner Stewart said Floridians should know the state's system works just fine. A close reading of the recent validity study indicates the FSA precisely measures student mastery of state standards, she said, and the questions were unbiased.
Superintendents are "interpreting it in their way," and accurate communication of the facts should help settle the discontent, Stewart said. "I certainly hope we have the ability to instill confidence for people with regard to the school grades."
Those grades are due, for now anyway, some time in the winter.
Until then, the battle lines are shaping up.
Parent groups have proposed rallies in Tallahassee. Superintendents are writing columns and posting videos to generate support for their views.
Some key lawmakers, by contrast, have said they're not interested in stalling school accountability, lest it falter. Former Gov. Jeb Bush's education foundation, meanwhile, keeps urging them to "move forward."
Few expected Florida, a longtime leader in education reform, to boil over as it has. If the state had opted for a modest transition, the pendulum might not have swung so far as testing glitches subsided and learning gains became available, AEI's Hess said.
But here it is.
"This is all just coming to a head right now, but we've been asking for two years" for a transition plan, said veteran Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook. "We've been trying for two years to prevent what's happening right now from happening."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.