Last week, the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) released the results of the 2016 3rd grade English Language Arts Florida Standards Assessment (ELA-FSA). Florida has a mandatory retention law that states that 3rd grade students with “substantial reading deficiencies” must score a level 2 or higher on the ELA-FSA or risk retention, so the timely release of these results is important. Students scoring a 1 on the FSA may qualify for a “good cause exemption”; for example, demonstrate an acceptable level of performance on an alternative standardized reading test approved by the FLDOE (like the Stanford Achievement Test). Good cause exemptions are outlined in F.S. 1008.25(6)(b). In the past, approximately half of the students scoring a level 1 qualify for a good cause exemption and promotion to 4th grade, while the other half do not and are retained in 3rd grade.
Here is a summary of the 2016 3rd Grade ELA-FSA results:
- Franklin and Hamilton Counties had the highest percentage of third graders at risk for retention (35%).
- “Only” 7% of St. John’s third graders are at risk of retention. (That is one out of every 14 students or more than one per classroom, on average.)
- 6,669 third graders in Miami Dade (24%) are at risk of retention, predicting more than 3,300 students retained after good cause exemptions.
- The four largest counties (Dade, Broward, Hillsborough and Palm Beach) each had between 23 and 25% of third graders at risk of retention.
- Results from “Deaf/Blind” show 68% of students scored a 1, 21% scored a 2, with just 11% “passing.” Everyone who reads that should question whether the FSA is valid, fair or appropriate for these students. There must be a better, more humane, way to assess our deaf/blind students.
- Overall, 48,785 (22%) of Florida’s 220,663 third graders scored a 1, placing them at risk of retention and predicting the eventual retention of more than 24,000 students.
24,000 students! That is a lot of 8 and 9 year olds. For comparison’s sake, in 2014, during the final year of FCAT 2.0, 39,872 (19%) of Florida’s third graders scored a level 1, predicting less than 20,000 retentions (still a lot, but significantly less than this year).
The first question parents should be asking is “Does this test appropriately assess 3rd grade reading proficiency or are students who read at grade level being marked for retention?” We have written blogs, before, outlining our questions regarding the validity of the FSA (here, here and here), specifically noting the lack of studies demonstrating validity, reliability or fairness for at-risk subpopulations of students (the very students most at risk for retention). Additionally, it appears the FSA has never been formally compared to any established national assessment. Whether the test, or the standards they assess, are grade level appropriate has, to our knowledge, never been demonstrated.
Recently, on social media, an anonymous educator released test items from the PARCC test (similar to the FSA) which revealed 4th grade questions based on reading material 2 grade levels above the recommended benchmarks. Read the questions here; ask yourself if you could answer these questions designed for 9 year olds. Are the reading levels for the 3rd grade FSA ELA any better? Since no one is allowed to see the test (not even teachers), no one knows for certain. We do know that the initial ELA-FSA 3rd grade Practice Test’s main reading passage (which read like an advertisement for virtual schools and has since been removed) had an average calculated grade level of 7.6 (that’s 7th grade, 6th month). The current 3rd grade ELA-FSA practice test passages, one about a kettle and the other about cheese, have slightly more appropriate average calculated grade levels of 4.1 and 6.0, respectively (grade levels calculated using readability-score.com). Is it appropriate to retain children based on reading passages well above their grade level? Could Florida be retaining children reading at grade level?
Another question parents of children threatened with retention should be asking is “Is retention an appropriate intervention for any child, let alone 24,000 of them?”
Since Jeb Bush was governor, Florida has been the “leader” in mandatory 3rd grade retention and other “reform” policies. But, as my mother always said, just because they are leading does not mean anyone should be following.
While testifying on 4/7/16 at the Citizens for Strong Schools vs Board of Education trial, Jay Greene, an education policy researcher from the University of Arkansas, defended the test based retention of large numbers of students, suggesting that Florida retains so many students that retention is no longer “stigmatizing”. (You can watch his testimony at about 1:35:00 here). I dare Mr. Greene to explain this to a parent who just learned their child will be retained because of a test score.
Mr. Greene seems to be in the minority of researchers when advocating for retention. The vast majority of the literature (reviewed here, here and here) suggests that, though retention may improve test scores when compared to grade level peers in the short run, those effects are less apparent when comparing age related peers and are short lived, evaporating by 8th grade. Certain groups of students (low income, single parent, certain ethnic groups) are more likely to be retained than others (position statement from Florida Association of School Psychologists). A recent study, by Megan Andrew, concluded that students who repeat a year between kindergarten and fifth grade are 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than kids with similar backgrounds, and even 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than siblings in the same family.
One of the most shocking things I learned from these reviews was the increased prevalence of grade retention over the past, approximately, 30 years. As pointed out in the CEELO review, in 1993, approximately 6 percent of kindergarteners were retained. By 2012, more than 450,000 elementary school students were held back each year, representing about 2% of all elementary school students. Likely, much of this increase is directly related to Florida being a “leader” in mandatory retention.
Keep in mind, that all of these studies were looking at the negative and lasting effect of retention on children who are struggling in school. What about students who are already successful readers: gifted students, honor roll students, voracious readers? What would the effect of retention be on them? Why even consider retaining students performing at or above grade level? Because we live in Floriduh, where the test is king and data must be obtained at all costs, even when it borders on the absurd.
In Seminole County, Gabi Weaver, the mother of a gifted third grader, who reads on an 8th grade level and has earned all A’s and B’s, with no documented reading deficiency, has been told her child (who opted out of the FSA and district IOWA) will NOT be promoted to 4th grade. Let that sink in; the district is refusing to promote an extremely successful third grader. Is that an appropriate use of your tax dollars?
Hundreds of third graders across the state are currently being threatened with retention because their parents chose to have their children minimally participate in state testing or “Opt Out.” At their parents’ request, these students participated in an act of protest against high stakes testing in public schools and so called “education reform,” opening their ELA-FSA test booklets but refusing to answer any questions. (You can learn more about opting out through The Florida OptOut Network here). By doing so, these students satisfy the state requirement to “participate” in testing without generating a test score. Districts, blaming top down mandates from the FLDOE, are demanding these students, including those with no history of reading difficulties, take multiple additional assessments or be retained. Parents of gifted, honor roll students, with previously documented reading abilities well above grade level, are asking why additional testing is necessary. What purpose does retaining above grade level readers serve beyond demanding compliance to the current, flawed accountability system? Trey Barnes, father of a gifted boy being similarly threatened with retention in Orange County, asked, “Which actual statute is being violated by promoting a student without a reading deficiency?” Good question. There is no such statute.
In Florida, we have gone from handing out “My Child is an Honor Roll Student” bumperstickers to retaining them. Spending tax dollars to retest and retain advanced students is accountabaloney at its finest. It should not be tolerated.
A word of warning to any states contemplating following Florida’s lead: this is where they will lead you… to a place where retention is used as punishment and compliance and obedience is valued more than common sense, education best practices or the best interests of a child; in other words, to a place knee deep in accountabaloney.