Education leaders caution comparing 2012 school grades due to credibility issues of revamped accountability system

Fort Pierce, FL — School grades for Florida’s public schools for the 2011-2012 school year are expected to be released in early July, according to the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE). The announcement of school grades was delayed this year from FLDOE compared to previous years’ release schedules due to the implementation of significant changes this year and the complexity of the new Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT 2.0), its higher scoring scale, new high school end-of-course core subject testing procedures, and higher cut scores for school grades.

However, for months, public school leaders across the state have consistently cautioned communities to not indulge in comparisons to previous years’ results.

St. Lucie Public Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon noted the caution is due to “the rules being changed in the middle of the game. This is a new day, and comparisons to the past are inaccurate and inappropriate,” Lannon said. “We as Florida’s public education leaders overwhelmingly support increasing rigor and relevance in curricula across core subject areas, but the necessary time to make adjustments was not taken in implementing the new standards. We should set a new baseline with this year’s results, not compare to any other year,” he added.

Thousands more students statewide this year were, surprisingly to them, described as not proficient based on their FCAT reading score, but would have scored at proficient, or grade level, in the previous scoring scale to move to the next grade level or to earn credit for graduation. School letter grades, based mostly on FCAT results, also determine some funding provisions, so school districts will see a negative impact on resources from the state if their students’ FCAT scores cause a drop in their school’s letter grade. Teacher evaluations, and thus compensation, are tied for the first time beginning this year to FCAT scores of students at their schools, even for those who teach such subjects as physical education, music or art, which are not FCAT-tested.

School accountability specialists cite the opportunity to accurately measure achievement growth going forward, both for individual students and schools, as the value of setting the new baseline, explained St. Lucie’s Director of Assessment and Accountability Kathleen Dailey.

But since the Florida legislature enacted radical changes to the state’s public school accountability system in the 2012 session, and FLDOE was directed to implement the changes and their consequences simultaneously this school year, there has been tremendous outcry from public school leaders and communities statewide about the impending impact those changes will have on school districts. Many question the validity of the new testing and scoring process, especially since FLDOE changed the proficiency scoring rubric for the FCAT writing test when so many students scored so poorly, and weakened the consequences for school grades so that no school would suffer their grade dropping more than one letter, contrary to what the original grading rubric dictated.

Testing experts agree with those questions of legitimacy. In an article published May 25, 2012, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers quoted Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Massachusetts, who said, “The FCAT is a black box (that) produces numbers that have been massaged by politicians to get desired outcomes.”

Other large Florida media outlets have also reported the frustration of Florida’s on-the-ground education leaders, who are disturbed with the continually expanding accountability system. A June 28, 21012, Orlando Sentinel article quoted two Central Florida schools superintendents who stated that Florida’s ”“runaway school accountability system is destined to fail and take with it the positive goals it was intended to accomplish.”” And, ““Orange Superintendent Ron Blocker and Bill Vogel, superintendent of Seminole schools, said the state’s school districts are being overwhelmed by demands of the continually expanding accountability system. Teacher evaluations based in large part on student test scores — the latest requirement imposed by the Legislature — are unworkable and may be the tipping point, they said.””

National online newspaper The Huffington Post published an opinion piece June 26, 2012, which refuted public claims by Florida’s Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson that vocal opponents just “don’t like testing.” The journalist countered that the push-back is “not an anti-testing resolution,” but a reaction of exasperation at how “FCAT has evolved into a system of monetary consequences and stringent penalties. Somehow, children were forgotten along the way.” What began a decade ago as a means to assess student learning has come to “determine a school’s funding, a child’s retention, teachers’ salaries, teachers’ jobs, closing neighborhood schools, and attracting new business to the area.”