Was HB7069 Just Another VAM Scam?

When parents complain about over-testing, local school board members often advise them to write to their legislators. When similar concerns are brought to the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE), parents are told “these are local decisions.” Which is it?

In April 2015, following a year where parents had loudly expressed their displeasure with the explosion of testing in public schools and the new Florida State Assessment (FSA) had a disastrous roll out, HB 7069, “An act relating to education accountability” was signed into law and immediately went into effect.

HB 7069 promised to (among other things):

  • reduce “state and local assessment requirements, including those commonly associated with progress monitoring.”
  • “eliminate prescriptive remediation and progress monitoring requirements for low-performing students and provide for targeted instructional support in reading in K-3 students.”
  • grant “districts greater flexibility in measuring student performance in courses not associated with statewide, standardized assessments and in evaluating instructional personnel and school administrators”

With such lofty aspirations, why haven’t we seen a reduction in progress monitoring, remediation and testing, in general, in the classrooms?

Reduction of Progress Monitoring:

Much of the overall testing in the classroom comes in the form of “progress monitoring”: assessments designed to quantify a child’s progress, often used to predict performance on upcoming state testing. I like to call these “the test that tests whether you’re ready to take the test.” Prior to HB7069, progress monitoring was required to assess reading skills of all K-3 students. Additionally, after third grade, progress monitoring was required for any student scoring a level 1 or 2 on a state assessment. In many districts, ALL students were progress monitored, regardless of FCAT/FSA score AND K-3 students were often progress monitored in Math in addition to the required progress monitoring in reading.

The use of standardized testing in K-3 students is problematic to begin with, ignoring developmental differences amongst our youngest learners and focusing the classroom on structured academic learning rather than more effective and developmentally appropriate play based learning. In general, standardized tests are considered invalid and unreliable for children under 8 (read more here, here and here).

Section 2 of HB7069 (Section 1002.20, F.S.) deleted the requirement that each elementary school regularly assess the reading ability of each K-3 student. This was good news and could have eliminated almost ALL of the standardized testing in K-3. Districts were still required to monitor students who were not meeting the performance requirements, but surely qualified teachers could have identified those children in need of intervention.

Sadly, our “littles” continue to be tested and retested in ways that are not developmentally appropriate and, more than likely, are harmful. Where are the districts that took the opportunity HB7069 offered and eliminated standardized progress monitoring in their K-3 classrooms? My own county (Monroe) continues to progress monitor all K-3 students in Reading and Math, using computer based standardized testing. (read more about the inappropriateness and unreliability of computer based testing in small children here).

Instead of requiring progress monitoring for all students (section 1008.25.20, F.S), districts were given three options for monitoring students who were “not meeting the school district or state requirements for satisfactory performance” or did not score a level 3 on a state standardized assessment. Any such student must be covered by one of the following plans:

  • A federally required student plan such as an individual education plan (IEP);
  • A schoolwide system of progress monitoring for all students, except a student who scores Level 4 or above in the specific subject area statewide assessment may be exempted from participation by the principal; or
  • An individual progress monitoring plan.

Districts could have chosen to individualize the progress monitoring plan, dramatically decreasing the amount of standardized testing for many students. Sadly, many (if not all) districts have chosen plan “B”: monitor ALL students in Math and Reading, whether they need it, or not.

Eliminate Prescriptive Remediation / Intensive Reading:

Prior to HB 7069, the state required that any student scoring a 1 or 2 on state assessments must be enrolled in remedial courses.  This led to the uncomfortable situation of students being enrolled in both Advanced Placement English Literature and Intensive Reading, at the same time.  The mandated remedial courses, also, meant many struggling students lost their electives to remediation.

Sections 3 and 4 of HB 7069 (Section 1003.4156, F.S. and 1003.4282, F.S.) eliminated the requirement for middle and high school students scoring Level 1 or 2 on state testing to automatically be enrolled in a remedial course. The decision to provide remedial courses is now supposed to be a local decision.

Section 9 of HB 7069 (section 1008.25, F.S.) discussed the use of “support” as opposed to remediation: “each student who does not achieve a Level 3 (satisfactory) or above on a statewide, standardized assessment must be evaluated to determine the nature of the student’s difficulty, the areas of academic need, and strategies for providing academic support to improve the student’s performance.”

So, mandatory remediation is no longer required and placement in remedial courses is now a district decision. Still, in many districts, students continue to be placed in remedial courses primarily, and sometimes entirely, based on test scores. My county, chose to use progress monitoring data to identify students in need of remediation, even, in some cases, where the teacher did not, or would not, recommend that child for such interventions. Why not return these decisions to the classroom teacher, who would surely be better at determining “the nature of the student’s difficulty, the areas of academic need, and strategies for providing academic support to improve the student’s performance” than a test score?

Flexibility in District created final exams:

Perhaps, the biggest outcry over testing during the 2014-15 school year was the unfunded state mandate that required districts to create common final exams for all grades and all subjects, including Kindergarten art class and 1st grade PE, with test results to be used, in part, to evaluate teachers. The requirement for district finals in all grades and all subjects was a requirement of SB736. Called the “Student Success Act,” SB736 also mandated the use of test scores in teacher evaluations (more about VAM below) and was passed in 2011, as a prerequisite to obtaining Race To The Top funding.     SB736 was the first bill Governor Scott signed after taking office.

Section 7 of HB 7069  (Section 1008.22 F.S.) eliminated SB 736’s requirement for “all grades, all subject” district created final exams. This should have allowed districts to return to teacher created final exams in most situations. Sadly, many districts are continuing to use and develop new district final exams in non-state tested subjects. District created midterms are not uncommon and some districts have created common 9 week assessments.

Why, when given the opportunity, didn’t districts choose to move towards other methods of measuring student performance? The initial mandate allowed for performance or portfolio assessments, but districts still seem to be moving toward multiple choice, common midterms and finals for many of their middle and high school courses. Why not use teacher created exams, performance assessments or portfolios? When teachers create the assessment, children are tested on what has been taught. When districts create the assessment, teachers must teach what will be tested and the results become as much of an assessment of the teacher as the student.

Why Is there Still So Much Testing?

HB7069 appears to have returned the responsibility of progress monitoring, remediation and final exams to the districts. School Boards were given the opportunity to dramatically decrease the amount of testing in their districts. They could choose to eliminate standardized testing in K-3. They could choose to individualize progress monitoring for their struggling students and eliminate it for the rest. They could choose individual teacher created final exams.

Or could they?

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Near the end of their FOIL presentation on HB 7069, the FLDOE described their “opportunity”: “To reclaim the powerful potential of VAM to support leaders in making data-driven decisions that support student learning and educator growth.” VAM (or Value Added Model) is a formula designed to evaluate teachers based on student test scores. Rarely are teacher created assessments or decisions included in “data-driven decisions.”

The use of VAM in teacher evaluations is one of education reformer’s favorite ideas, despite the fact that the method has been discredited by multiple studies (here, here, and here) and, frankly, defies common sense. Steven Klees, professor University of Maryland, wrote:

“The bottom line is that regardless of technical sophistication, the use of VAM is never [and, perhaps never will be] ‘accurate, reliable, and valid’ and will never yield ‘rigorously supported inferences” as expected and desired.”

In this 3 minute video, Stanford Professor Emeritus, Edward Haertel, further explains the flaws of using Value-Added Models for teacher assessment.

Teachers harmed by their VAM scores are beginning to sue. In May, a judge in New York found in favor of fourth-grade teacher Sheri G. Lederman, calling the state’s use of VAM in her evaluation “arbitrary” and “capricious.” Similar cases are popping up across the country.

Why continue to use such a controversial and discredited method of teacher evaluation? Who benefits? The answer may be as simple as following the money.

The design and implementation of VAM in Florida Public schools was contracted to American Institutes for Research or AIR (the same company that later won the bid to create the new FSA). The initial contract of almost $4M and millions more for annual “maintenance”  fees per this long term contract.

I was, personally, surprised to discover that the “VAM formula” had annual maintenance fees. Floridians are spending massive amounts of tax payer money, annually, on a flawed formula that has essentially been discredited and has been declared arbitrary and capricious in a court of law. The FLDOE should expect to pay even more tax dollars defending against the VAM lawsuits that are sure to come. Paying vendors excessive amounts tax dollars on unproven, or disproven, education policies in the name of “Accountability”? Sounds like education “reform” at work…

The AIR representative for the coordination of VAM contract, which led to the development of Florida’s Value Added Model, was Christy Hovanetz, who served as Contract Manager. Prior to working for AIR, Ms. Hovanetz served as the Assistant Deputy Commissioner of the FLDOE. Ms. Hovanetz now works as a Senior Policy Fellow at Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE). Not surprisingly, the FEE’s Florida affiliate, Foundation for Florida’s Future (FFF) applauded the initial implementation of VAM, stating “This model will transform Florida’s historic law into a powerful tool to raise the quality of public education and establish the Sunshine State as a national model for teacher quality.”

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Jeb Bush and his Foundations have had unprecedented influence on Florida education policy, apparently without regards to costs. The state’s continued allegiance to VAM is a perfect example of that influence. One often wonders why Florida would continue to promote questionable policies and fund flawed practices, essentially ignoring the research data to the contrary and often defying even common sense (I’m looking at you, and your “Best and Brightest” bill, Erik Fresen). You don’t have to look too far to understand that the policy makers have been more interested in keeping Jeb, and perhaps his investor friends, happy than doing what was right for the public school children in Florida. Senator Gaetz said as much to Politico reporter, Jessica Bakeman:

Reflecting on the bill’s fate during the session that ended in March, Gaetz, a term-limited Niceville Republican, said House Republicans resisted changes because of their loyalty to Bush. But he argued they were wrong to assume Bush would oppose his plan.

  To read the full article, click here.

Who benefits from VAM? Test developers, like AIR, (and their investors) who profit from the formula’s use as well as the tests needed to provide the data, and education reformers, like former Gov. Bush, who can use the data to further the narrative that public schools are failing and teachers are to blame. With Gov. Bush back in charge of the FEE, parents will have an even more difficult time being heard.

So, herein lies the problem: If the purpose of progress monitoring, remediation and common finals is to collect data for VAM and other data-driven decisions, and the FLDOE wanted to use this opportunity to “reclaim” VAM’s potential, then HB7069 was a sham. Legislators, bombarded with concerns about over testing, were convinced to vote for a bill that merely shifted the blame for over testing from the state to the districts and maintained the data collection requirements needed to sustain the use of VAM. HB7069 made it possible for Tallahassee to say “we have given control back to the districts” while districts understand the truth behind that illusion.  State mandates continue to force districts to comply with data-driven accountability mandates, leaving little room for true local control. Under constant threats of decreased funding, districts focus all their efforts on maintaining compliance.

To be fair, HB7069 did eliminate the 11th grade FSA ELA, before it was ever administered, and the mandatory administration of the PERT assessment, previously given in 11th grade. It also placed a limit on state and district testing at 5%, or a ridiculously high 45 hours per year (yet no system was set up to monitor that and few, if any, districts had to reduce testing to get in under the bar). The bill also reduced the use of test scores in teacher’s evaluation from 50% to 33%. These components may be admirable, but they do little to lessen the real impact of high stakes testing on our kids.

In the end, parents complained about excessive testing and Tallahassee responded by shifting the blame to the districts; which is ironic when the bill was titled “An act relating to education accountability.” Who is accountable for the over-testing problems in Florida’s public schools? If you ask Tallahassee, who created the policies, the answer appears to be “not me.”

Parents are tired of laws that promise change but don’t deliver. Ignoring research data and continuing to pay millions for failed programs like VAM is not true accountability. Blaming others for the consequences of your own policies, by passing sham laws like HB7069, makes a mockery of the word “accountability.” Enough is enough. We are AGAIN asking for a full review of the accountability system in Florida.

And this time we suggest listening to someone besides just Jeb!

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One thought on “Was HB7069 Just Another VAM Scam?

  1. Reblogged this on Dern's Discourse and commented:
    VAM succeeded in driving our best and seasoned teachers our of the field. Districts did little to change the already in place systems of testing and accountability. The new laws only work when we have leaders who are willing to make changes and use HB7069 and ESSA to our advantage. I am running for a seat in Duval County and there is much work still left to be done. Great explanations of how the system is failing us, again.

    Like

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