Florida, 3rd Grade Retention and Transparency: Clear as Mud

It’s difficult to be transparent when you don’t really want people to understand the law; especially the law that pertains to participating in Florida’s notoriously high stakes, 3rd grade English Language Arts (ELA) assessment.

I am not an attorney, but I am a good reader, having been nearly constantly reading for over 50 years now, AND I am good at “listening and learning.”  Lately, I have been “listening and learning” to Florida’s education leaders and legislators and closely reading Florida State Statute. Florida’s legislators claim to prize “transparency”. For Florida’s education leaders, sadly, it appears difficult to be fully transparent while trying to keep citizens from understanding the law as written.

Just to be “clear” (pun intended), Merriam Webster defines “transparent” as “easy to notice or understand; honest and open, not secretive; able to be seen through.”

When it comes the Florida State Assessments, the Department of Education, along with many district superintendents and administrators, fail any apparent attempt at transparency.

First, the DOE and local school administrators will repeatedly state that “Opt Out” is not allowed in Florida because, by statute, “Each student must participate in the statewide, standardized assessment program required by s. 1008.22” (FS1008.25(4)(a)). Last year, in New York state, almost 200,000 students “opted out” of New York’s State Assessment by failing to show up for the test.  By Florida Statute, that is not legal.  Students are expected to be present for testing. The DOE is correctly stating statute there.

However, because of the mandate to participate, Florida’s “Opt Out Procedure” requires a child be presented with the test (as required by law), after which the child begins the test but refuses to answer any questions.  When an insufficient number of questions are answered (in this case zero), the test will be deemed to have insufficient data for scoring and, thus, will go un-scored. (you can learn more about Florida’s “Opt Out Procedure” here and here). Often, after politely refusing to answer questions, a child’s parents will pick the child up from school for the duration of the testing period.  If the child leaves the testing room early, schools may be required to “invalidate” the student’s test. An invalid test (per page 69 of the FSA Manual) is required to be returned to the State “in order to be counted for participation purposes.”

CLEARLY, students following the “Opt Out Procedure” fulfill the state’s participation requirement to the extent required by law. Is it possible that the DOE and local school administrators are not aware of the “opt outer’s” process allowing participation, as required by law, but generating no usable score? I suspect not. The DOE has been reluctant to formally define “participation” for fear that definition will be used by the opt out movement. In this article in the Tampa Bay Times, DOE spokeswoman Meghan Collins said, “I feel like answering the type of question provides more information that could be construed as encouraging students or parents not to take the test, that’s just something we don’t want to do.” Refusing to define words is hardly transparent, I think.

When it comes to mandatory third grade retention for students who “fail the FSA,” the DOE has been as clear as mud.

Parents who have informed schools of their intent to minimally participate in 3rd grade testing have been bombarded with letters apparently designed to coerce full participation.  Threats include mandatory retention, summer school, extra testing and burdensome portfolio assessments. A sample letter is posted here (edited for privacy, emphasis theirs). Thousands of similar letters have been distributed across the state this year. They are so common that education advocates now refer to them as “bully letters”:

Dear Parent of Third Grader,

I have received an answer from XXXXX, our XXSD assessment liaison.  If your 3rd grader opted out of the FSA, she would be retained and would be treated as all other students that fail to achieve level 2 or higher and the required assessment. A portfolio might provide sufficient evidence for exemption from mandatory retention – but the student would also have to take the Stanford reading assessment as part of the process – AND the portfolio process is very proscriptive in order to provide this evidence. So she would have to take a different assessment and we would need to provide a portfolio order for her to be promoted.  Unfortunately, since third grade is a high stakes test we are bound by the law. I have included the actual law below for your reference.   

The law (F.S. 1008.25) is very clear. A third grade student must be retained if they do not achieve a level 2 score on FSA which is required for all public school students under F.S. 1008.22. 

(b) To be promoted to grade 4, a student must score a Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3. If a student’s reading deficiency is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3, the student must be retained.

Signed,

School Principal

 According to this “bully letter” : “The law (F.S. 1008.25) is very clear. A third grade student must be retained if they do not achieve a level 2 score on FSA which is required for all public school students under F.S. 1008.22,” and FS1008.25(5)(b) is copied as “proof.” Let’s look at the rest of F.S. 1008.25(5):

(5) READING DEFICIENCY AND PARENTAL NOTIFICATION.

(a) Any student who exhibits a substantial deficiency in reading, based upon locally determined or statewide assessments conducted in kindergarten or grade 1, grade 2, or grade 3, or through teacher observations, must be given intensive reading instruction immediately following the identification of the reading deficiency. The student’s reading proficiency must be monitored and the intensive instruction must continue until the student demonstrates grade level proficiency in a manner determined by the district, which may include achieving a Level 3 on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment.
(b) To be promoted to grade 4, a student must score a Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3. If a student’s reading deficiency is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3, the student must be retained.

(c) The parent of any student who exhibits a substantial deficiency in reading, as described in paragraph (a), must be notified in writing of the following:

1. That his or her child has been identified as having a substantial deficiency in reading.
2. A description of the current services that are provided to the child.
3. A description of the proposed supplemental instructional services and supports that will be provided to the child that are designed to remediate the identified area of reading deficiency.
4. That if the child’s reading deficiency is not remediated by the end of grade 3, the child must be retained unless he or she is exempt from mandatory retention for good cause.
5. Strategies for parents to use in helping their child succeed in reading proficiency.
6. That the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment is not the sole determiner of promotion and that additional evaluations, portfolio reviews, and assessments are available to the child to assist parents and the school district in knowing when a child is reading at or above grade level and ready for grade promotion.
7. The district’s specific criteria and policies for a portfolio as provided in subparagraph (6)(b)4. and the evidence required for a student to demonstrate mastery of Florida’s academic standards for English Language Arts. A parent of a student in grade 3 who is identified anytime during the year as being at risk of retention may request that the school immediately begin collecting evidence for a portfolio.
8. The district’s specific criteria and policies for midyear promotion. Midyear promotion means promotion of a retained student at any time during the year of retention once the student has demonstrated ability to read at grade level.
First, it is important to notice that F.S.1008.25(5) specifically deals with “READING DEFICIENCY AND PARENTAL NOTIFICATION.” This is a portion of the law that deals with students who have READING DEFICIENCIES. The first paragraph, F.S.1008.25(5)(a), describes how children who are found to have “a substantial deficiency in reading” must be given intensive reading instruction. That student’s reading proficiency then must be monitored and intervention continues until the student demonstrates grade level proficiency “in a manner determined by the district, which may include achieving a Level 3 on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment.” Early identification of reading deficiencies is, clearly, a priority. The state mandates intervention and monitoring of these children.
So, when you move on to F.S. 1008.25(5)(b), the portion quoted (and highlighted and bolded) in our bully letter, it still pertains to students with reading deficiencies.  The statute requires that any student with a documented reading deficiency, must demonstrate that deficiency has been “remedied” by scoring a 2 or higher on the FSA-ELA. It does NOT say that a third grade student, with NO previously documented reading deficiency, “must be retained if they do not achieve a level 2 score on FSA.” This portion of the law pertains only to those with documented reading deficiencies.
The rest of section 5 goes on to define the requirements of notifying parents of their child’s reading deficiencies as well as the statement that “the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment is not the sole determiner of promotion and that additional evaluations, portfolio reviews, and assessments are available to the child to assist parents and the school district in knowing when a child is reading at or above grade level and ready for grade promotion.” Again, this all applies to children with documented reading deficiencies.
So, why would districts be sending letters to families of children without documented reading deficiencies, threatening mandatory grade retention if they fail to achieve a level 2 on the FSA-ELA ,when the quoted statute clearly deals only with reading deficiencies? Why, in our sample letter, did this district threaten that a child without a documented reading deficiency, whose parents elected to opt her out of the FSA, “would be retained and would be treated as all other students that fail to achieve level 2 or higher and the required assessment”? What is the Florida DOE doing to clarify the situation?
On May 18, 2015, at the Florida Organization of Instructional Leaders (FOIL) conference, the DOE gave a presentation entitled “School Accountability and Assessments.”  This presentation, among other things, went section by section through the recently passed HB 7069, explaining its implication to the gathered district assessment leaders. Regarding 3rd grade retention, this was presented:
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The DOE claimed that HB7069 (section 9) had changed the requirement for a student to be promoted to grade 4. They emphasized this in red:
Beginning in 2015-2016, grade 3 students must score a Level 2 or higher on the ELA statewide, standardized assessment for promotion to grade 4.
Please note that the new language from HB7069, remains under the category of Reading Deficiency and Parental Notification.
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So, what had changed? Previously (2010) the law (1008.25(5)(b) had read: “Beginning with the 2002-2003 school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the statewide assessment test in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.” So what changed? The law went from being clearly understandable to significantly more vague when taken out of context. However, when context is considered, nothing regarding 3rd grade retention had changed.  F.S. 1008.25(5) continues to apply to children with reading deficiencies.  The intent appears to continue to be that students with reading deficiencies must demonstrate proficiency before being promoted to 4th grade. As to students without documented reading deficiencies, the law is silent. Mandatory retention is certainly not required. What state would mandate retention of children who perform at or above grade level?
Yet, last Spring, Florida’s DOE presented language to the contrary, in bright red letters, at the conference meant to “explain” HB7069.  It is not surprising that the same language is showing up in bully letters across the state. Children are being threatened with retention, with misquoted statute that appears to come directly from the DOE.
This is not transparency.  The DOE’s misinformation is being used to threaten and coerce students and families across the state.  The misinformation must stop.
Our advice? School district attorneys, district assessment liaisons, superintendents, educators: stop relying on the DOE to interpret Florida Statute. I read the statutes; you should, too. Most educators know the practice of mandatory retention for struggling third graders is questionable at best. State mandated retention of children performing at or above proficiency is ridiculous. Adults threatening small children is unconscionable.
To be crystal clear, the bullying needs to stop.
If you have received a bully letter regarding your child, please provide the sender with a copy of this post. In the absence of a reading deficiency, an FSA score is NOT needed for promotion to 4th grade.
If you want to learn more about 3rd grade Opt out in Florida, check here.
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Accountabaloney On Trial: Day One

Today, broadcast live on The Florida Channel, Accountabaloney went on trial. For Florida’s public school advocates, and perhaps public school advocates across the country, this is the “trial of the century.” You should watch it (here).

The basics of the case are outline here by The Gainesville Sun (read about it here, here and here).

Article 9 of the Florida Constitution says the state has “a paramount duty” to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.”

In Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education, plaintiffs say lawmakers have inadequately funded public schools and given financial preference to charter and private schools.

“They see education as a business, a money-making business,” said Karen McCann, president of the Alachua County Education Association.

Citizens for Strong Schools is a nonprofit based in Alachua County that studies and recommends ideas to improve education. Other plaintiffs include Fund Education Now, an Orlando-based organization, and six citizens. In addition to the Board of Education, the state Senate and House of Representatives are defendants.

The lawsuit was filed in 2009 and is finally being heard in Leon County Circuit Court this week. The complete non-jury trial is expected to take weeks. Today, 5,494 exhibits were offered into evidence.

We are not court reporters and encourage you to watch the trial yourselves and pay attention to the trial news. Here are what we consider to be the highlights from this morning’s opening remarks:

In opening statements, the plaintiffs stated they aim to show how high stakes tests, their uses and the time spent testing, negatively impact our schools. They aim to hold the state accountable for the same measures for which it holds the schools, teachers, and districts accountable. They claimed the system fails low income and special needs kids and that the state funding formula was enacted in 1973 and the state has never re-evaluated what resources are actually needed for a high quality system. They are asking the court to find that Florida has not fulfilled its paramount duty to fund an adequate education for ALL students. They claim Florida has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to our kids.

The State, in its opening remarks, declared rather than being a failure, Florida has become a leader of states in successfully instituting education reforms. They celebrated Florida’s 4th grade NAEP scores as among the highest in the nation. They did not mention that most of us recognize that the high 4th grade NAEP scores are a direct result of mandatory 3rd grade retention, a policy that has been show to cause more long term harm than good.  There also was no mention that all the 4th grade NAEP gains disappear by the 8th grade NAEP assessment, suggesting the improvements are temporary, at best. (The National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, is a federal mandated assessment, which evaluates a sampling of 4th, 8th and 12th grade students in a variety of subjects, every other year via “The Nation’s Report Card”, read more here.)

The defense also reported improvements in FCAT scores, graduation rates and participation and performance in AP exams.  They are prepared to defend the use of VAM, High Stakes testing, School Choice, 3rd grade retention and Florida’s A-F school grading system. (It sounds to us like it is Jeb’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, or “education reform,” in general, on trial here. The entire country will be watching. #jebucationontrial).

In his opening remarks, the defense attorney admitted that annual testing was designed to monitor teachers, not for informing instruction. He, also, claimed Florida’s education system to be a model of “efficiency,” reporting the “State has targeted funding in a prudent and efficient manner…” by the states FEFP formula which requires a higher “Local Required Effort” from more advantaged districts and less contribution from less advantaged counties. (Interestingly, this form of “equitable” school funding appears to have been eliminated in the recent budget negotiations, when legislators removed the local required effort and funded per pupil spending through the general fund. Read more here).

Then the state threw the districts under the bus…  asking the judge to question, if there are short comings, whether it isn’t all the fault of local school boards and school districts: “that is very important when you hear about things that aren’t perfect, who’s fault is this?” The State is claiming that priorities and choices are made at the district level; some districts spend money wisely, others do not.

In other words, the State is willing to accept responsibility for the things that go well and blame the districts for the things that do not… And that, my friends, is the definition of “Accountabaloney.”

There is another attorney representing the interests of 6 families, 3 have children using vouchers so their children can attend private school and 3 utilize the McKay Scholarship so their special needs children can attend private schools. Their attorney appears to be ready to argue that McKay Scholarships and Vouchers benefit not only these children but children across the state, as they have caused schools to pay closer attention to the education needs of subpopulations of children.  He also argued that the state constitution discusses education for ALL children, not just those that attend public school.

The first witness will take the stand this afternoon. Suffice it to say, as this is Accountabaloney on trial, we will be watching to call out all the baloney …

Student Achievement and FSA Validity: More Accountabaloney

A test is only valid if the results are used in a valid way. If a test’s results are used in anyway other than their intended use, the validity of that use must, also, be confirmed. This, essentially, sums up the lack of validity of the entire Florida Education Accountability system: tests that may have once been be valid for one use are now being used for a myriad of uses they were never intended for. Our children are sitting for tests whose results are used to determine promotion and graduation eligibility, rank and punish teachers, evaluate schools and districts and, because of school grades, determine local property values. Are these valid uses of the FSA? Has anyone bothered to check?

Following significant concerns regarding the validity of the new Florida State Assessment (FSA), legislators, during the 2015 session, ordered an independent verification of the new state assessment. Last summer, Alpine Testing Solutions, in partnership with EdCount, completed a partial, so called “independent”, verification of the psychometric validity FSA.  (You can read the report here, and our comments on it’s incomplete nature here). In the report, Alpine describes the relationship of validity to the intended use of assessment results.

“The process of evaluating an assessment and its associated validity evidence is directly related to the intended uses of the scores. Validity refers to these specific uses rather than a global determination of validity for an assessment program. As such, it is possible that the validity evidence supports one specific use of scores from an assessment while is insufficient for another.”

For example, a spelling test might be a valid way of measuring a student’s spelling abilities.  That same spelling test would tell you nothing about the child’s math skills, knowledge of U.S. History or ability to drive a car. Likewise, a student’s driver’s test is an insufficient measurement of that student’s spelling skills.

Table 2 (page 27 of the final Alpine report) provides a summary of these intended uses of the FSA (as provided to Alpine by the FLDOE) and notes the uses for which modifications have been made for 2014-15 as the first year of the program.

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The stated intended uses of the FSA include: teacher evaluation, school and district grades, school improvement rating and state accountability.  The ONLY listed uses for students are 3rd grade promotion, graduation eligibility (for both grade ELA and Algebra EOC) and student grades (for the math EOCs which are worth 30% of the students course grade). Please note: nowhere in Table 2 is “provide student academic achievement and learning gains data to students, parents, teachers, or schools” mentioned, yet this is reported to be the primary purpose of the student assessment program. In fact, according to the chart, there are NO intended uses for individual students, at all, for grade level FSA testing from grade 4 to grade 9.

I want to repeat that: according to the Alpine Validity Study, there are NO intended uses for individual students, at all, for grade level FSA testing from grade 4 to grade 9!

So, not only did the Alpine Study fail to evaluate 11 of the 17 new FSA assessments and fail to assess whether any of the tests were fair, valid or reliable for vulnerable sub-populations (read more here), but, according to Table 2, it EVEN failed to evaluate  whether the results could be used for the (reported) primary purpose of the state assessment system: evaluating student achievement.

It bears repeating that the 2014 Florida Statewide Assessments (FCAT 2.0) Technical Report (released in 12/2014), on page 137, suggested that further studies were needed to verify the inference “that the state’s accountability program is making a positive impact on student proficiency and school accountability without causing unintended negative consequences.” (Emphasis mine.) It will be difficult, I think, to evaluate that if the validity of the use of individual student scores is never determined.

When school administrators tell you the FSA is about providing information about student achievement and learning gains, show them this.  Providing information about student achievement and learning gains does not appear to be a priority of the current system; ranking and punishing teachers and schools does. Ask the “powers that be” when is Florida’s Accountability system going to take a serious look at the appropriate use and the current misuse of test scores?  When will they verify whether the current system is making a positive impact on student proficiency (dropping ACT and NAEP scores suggest otherwise)?  When will the myriad of unintended consequences be addressed? Until then, this is not a valid accountability system; it is all a bunch of accountabaloney.