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Many are not impressed as Florida releases first school test results

The screen students see when they log in to take the Florida Standards Assessments.

 Florida's troubles with its new computerized testing system this week [

Photo: Pasco County School District]
The screen students see when they log in to take the Florida Standards Assessments. Florida's troubles with its new computerized testing system this week [ Photo: Pasco County School District]
Published Oct. 1, 2015

Initial results from Florida's controversial new tests arrived at schools Wednesday amid a chorus of criticism that the data shouldn't count.

Jinia Parker, a testing reform advocate from Pinellas County, echoed many, calling a recent validity study of the numbers "a farce" and declaring that "the results don't matter at all." She said a more detailed report due later this month "would be of better use lining the litter box than giving an indication of what our students know."

The data provide some insights into how children did on the spring Florida Standards Assessments, but only in comparison to one another. They divide students into quarters, from "bottom" to "top."

For the most part, the students were evenly distributed.

"We did okay, I guess," said Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning, who reiterated widespread concerns about the data's validity from superintendents, teachers and others.

"I don't think it's anything to celebrate," he said, "and I don't think it's anything to stress over."

But differences in student performance offered some perspective.

Hernando County schools, for instance, had 21 percent of students in the bottom quarter in math, while Hillsborough County schools had 28 percent. Florida's small, rural and heavily poor districts had relatively few students among the state's top performers, while wealthier districts boasted much larger percentages.

"The school differences seem to separate pretty much along economic lines," said Sam Whitten, testing director for Hillsborough schools. "That's how it has been throughout the years, when we look at performance scores only."

He worried that the state's plan to factor the new data into school grades, with no ability to compare them to last year's performance, would confuse more than help. The state will develop passing rates and school grades later this fall.

Knowing where students fall compared to others in the state could be more useful to parents than having their scores, testing experts said.

"If you scored in level 2, you might feel bad that you didn't reach level 3 (proficient), but not that bad if you were the highest-scoring kid in the state," explained Scott Marion, executive director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.

The information, however, is of limited value overall, said Greg Cizek, a University of North Carolina testing expert. Florida tests are designed to show how well students master state standards, he said. But "if all you know is that a student performed better than some other students . . . you don't really know too much and can't do too much with (the results)."

He said the only way the data might help is if they were detailed enough to show how students in a school did on individual test questions compared to the district or the state.

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The results arrived as educators, parents and activists are intensifying their push to quash them and their consequences on schools. The critics cite questions raised in an independent study of the Florida Standards Assessments and their problem-plagued rollout early this year.

Florida Department of Education officials said they released the data as part of a years-long effort to measure student and school performance. They acknowledged shortcomings in the data, owing largely to the state's transition to new standards and tests.

However, they say they have taken several steps to lessen potentially negative consequences. For instance, schools will not be placed into state oversight programs because of low performance, and students will not be forced to repeat grades or courses. The scores will remain a piece of teacher evaluations.

With the materials distributed Wednesday, schools can see if they had higher percentages of students in the top 25 percent, for example, or in the bottom 25 percent, than the state average.

In language arts, for instance, three Pinellas elementary schools had a greater percentage of students in the bottom quarter than all other schools in the state but one — the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. Melrose Elementary had 71 percent of students in the lowest level, while Campbell Park had 68 percent and Fairmount Park had 66 percent.

Hillsborough County's Washington Elementary had 65 percent of students tested fall in the bottom quarter.

Superintendents across Florida, joined Tuesday by the Florida PTA and other education organizations, have called on the Department of Education not to issue grades. They argue that problems with the new computerized tests made the results suspect.

Department leaders, backed by some key lawmakers, have insisted that the school grading system must continue without interruption. They said they have made arrangements for schools that experienced significant testing problems to appeal their grades.

Others are convinced those efforts won't matter.

"Florida's accountability system is not 'fragile,' it's broken," said Cindy Hamilton, co-founder of an Orlando group that promotes opting out of state tests. "The use of these scores is not 'reckless.' It is education malpractice."

The system's supporters, meanwhile, looked to build upon the work already done.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said he is working with the department to try to find ways to meet the concerns of superintendents and others, while maintaining the system's forward motion. The details have yet to be worked out.

The state superintendents association chimed in Wednesday by offering its thoughts for how legislation might look to fix the problems it has seen in the accountability system. Those included setting in law that all schools would receive a grade of "incomplete" for 2014-15.

Times staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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