Wariness over a recent study of Florida's school testing system reached a new level Thursday as state senators learned that Department of Education officials had input on at least two drafts of the document.
Already doubtful about the study's recommendations, senators suggested its impartiality had been compromised.
"The key feature of this report was it was supposed to be independent. That's how it was sold to us," Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Fort Lauderdale, said of the effort, which cost the state nearly $600,000. "Was there any other person that you could have had review it other than the (commissioner) of education?"
Study author Andrew Wiley of Alpine Testing Solutions said he didn't know. He explained that the department offered clarifications on some technical wording, but did not influence the overall findings.
The revelation did little to mollify many of the senators, who had called for the validity study after a spring filled with computer problems for thousands of students. They came with pointed questions for the authors and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart as they met for the first time since the report was issued Sept. 1. Several walked away less than satisfied.
Stewart has described the study's findings as positive, saying they give the state the green light to use this year's test results for school grades and teacher evaluations. But she did not help her cause when she suggested, just moments before Thursday's meeting, that some people had "misrepresented" portions of the study.
Stewart was referring to critics who focused on language in the study that described problems in "just about every aspect" of the spring testing cycle and found the scores "suspect."
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who heads the state superintendents association, called Stewart's midday press release "offensive." He took a chunk of time from the 90-minute meeting to ask Wiley whether educated professionals could read the study and come away with a different read than that of the Department of Education.
"There is room for professional disagreement here," Wiley responded. "There is data in the report that could be looked at and pointed to that says maybe the use of these test scores would not be appropriate. There was rigorous debate in our group. … This was not an easy decision."
Sen. John Legg, the Pasco Republican who chairs the committee, had said he wanted to focus on moving forward to improve the testing system.
Senators didn't get that far, though, instead zeroing in on the seeming discrepancies between what they read in the study and how the Education Department framed it for the public.
Several focused on charts showing that large percentages of questions in the Florida Standards Assessments did not match state standards. Legg said that was his biggest concern.
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Wiley explained that the chart might have been confusing, in that it aimed to show connections between questions and the standards they were supposed to connect with. It did not mean, however, they did not match any standards, he said.
In fact, of 380 test questions reviewed, just two did not meet any Florida standard, Wiley said.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a former Okaloosa County schools superintendent, honed in on a portion of the study that detailed problems across the whole testing process this year.
Should teachers, parents, students and district leaders be satisfied with using the results of a test with such a description, he asked Wiley. "Would you bet your career on an evaluation that was based on an assessment such as this?"
After Wiley said he would, Gaetz sounded a refrain that many of his Senate colleagues repeated: Did Department of Education officials influence the findings?
That's when Wiley revealed that department officials had reviewed drafts of the study before its release to the public. He also said his researchers reached their own conclusions.
By the time Stewart came to the podium, the committee had five minutes remaining before adjournment.
She said she received the final document at 4:55 p.m. Aug. 31, and read the executive summary before preparing a statement that was publicly released at the same time as the report the next day. She noted that people who criticized the report had less time to read it before making comments about its findings.
Legg then cut her off and ended the meeting.
Afterward, Montford said the debate over school testing in Florida was far from over.
"I don't think that people will just simply settle down," he said. "There's too much at risk."
The options, though, are fairly limited, Montford added. The Legislature meets in January, and testing begins in February.
Legg said he expected school grades to come out as planned in December. Lawmakers, he said, could not stop the process. Satisfied with the response he got on test questions matching state standards, he said: "My No. 1 question was answered. I want to work on other issues."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.