Public Comment on ESSA: We Need a REAL Accountability Overhaul

“Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.”   -Unknown

In December 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing No Child Left Behind, which had been in place since 2002.  The ESSA purports to allow states greater flexibility for the design of their education accountability system, which is great news for us because we have been calling for a complete overhaul of Florida’s accountabaloney system since day 1 of this blog! We hope Florida can rise to the occasion and take full advantage of this opportunity to address our deeply flawed accountability system.

Some states appear to be rising to the challenge. Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt advises a system that focuses on students:

“If we don’t come out with an accountability system focused on students, then we’ve failed. It can’t be about adults chasing points. The system needs to promote what’s best for students.” -Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt 4/17/16

If Florida isn’t careful, Kentucky may become the leader in education accountability! They certainly appear to be headed in the right direction (which is away from the adults chasing points to ratify the A-F school grade system). Good for Kentucky!

Floridians are waking up to the realities of the system. Florida’s students are not well served by a high stakes test focused system, as recently explained by the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board:

“A major part of the problem, as we have written before, has been the use of the high-stakes tests for purposes to which they are unsuited. Those include school grades and teacher evaluations. Legislatures and governors with a stick-it-to-public-education attitude have hurt teacher morale, recruitment and retention, exacerbating the situation…

The “reformers” have now become the entrenched special interests. They want more of the same. Floridians should want better.”

These are all wise words and Florida’s Department of Education and legislature should heed them.  On June, 21, 2016, one day after it was promised, the FLDOE opened a website for public comment on changes to the Education Accountability system and ESSA. We invite all Florida citizens to comment on Florida’s current accountabaloney system and demand change. Sadly, if you are going to do so using the new website, you might need a law degree. It is just that convoluted. There are nine individual surveys and each one asks you to comment on specific portions of the ESSA legislation or draft regulations. Even the Florida Association of School Superintendents (FADSS) complained at today’s State Board of Education meeting, asking for a more authentic voice than an online opportunity. (You can watch here around 1:48:00). They demanded that stakeholders have a real voice in the process.

A real voice in the process will be difficult given the convoluted website. Here is what I did: I wrote up a list of my demands, copied it and pasted it into every comment box on each of the one surveys. I asked the FLDOE to determine which part of my demands corresponded to the confusing question they were asking. You might want to try a similar plan (you can copy my list if it suits you), but please let your voice be heard.

What should you ask for?

First, remind the FLDOE of “the original intent of ESEA, which was to facilitate equitable, thriving, and successful public education for all schools via distribution of funding free of strings attached other than need and a comprehensive and viable game plan for success.”

Demand a complete accountability overhaul: eliminate high stakes attached to state testing, minimize state standardized tests to those mandated by ESSA, return classroom assessments to teachers, utilizing primarily locally-based, teacher-controlled assessments, protect student data and make student data privacy a top priority.

  • Eliminate high stakes attached to state testing. It is the stakes attached to the tests that have, more than anything else, corrupted the education system.
    • End the mandatory 3rd grade promotion requirement as well as the graduation requirement to pass the Algebra 1 EOC and 10th grade FSA-ELA . These are not required by federal law or regulations. Many states already have eliminated their test dependent graduation requirements.
    • Dramatically reduce or eliminate the weight of the state EOC exams on the students final grade, from 30% to 10% or less.
    • Stop the use of VAM and test scores to evaluate teachers. ESSA eliminated any federal mandate for test-based teacher evaluation.
    • Test scores should make up no more than 51% of the total points in the A-F School Grade formula  (the minimum percentage allowed under ESSA).
    • Ensure that School Grades are used to identify schools in need of assistance (including additional funding) and not to punish schools identified as “low performers.” ESSA does require states to rank all schools and act to improve the lowest performing, but it no longer specifies the types of interventions required.
  • There should be no state standardized tests beyond those mandated by ESSA (reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, science once in elementary, middle and high school). 
    • Minimize required state standardized tests to those mandated by ESSA. In Florida the Biology EOC and Algebra 1 EOC, along with the 10th grade FSA ELA could satisfy the high school requirements. The 9th grade FSA-ELA and all other state mandated EOCs could be eliminated.
    • The state should advocate for pilot programs allowing grade span testing or sampling in place of current ESSA mandates.
    • State should forbid standardized local interim, benchmark, predictive, formative, or other such tests, including those embedded in commercial on-line curricula. Eliminate all test data reporting requirements beyond the ESSA mandated assessments.
    • Institute a ban on standardized testing in pre-K through grade 3.
    • End the secrecy around state mandated assessments. Allow educators and parents to view and review state assessments.
  • Return classroom assessments to teachers, utilizing primarily locally-based, teacher-controlled assessments, such as projects and portfolios. The New York Performance Standards Consortium has demonstrated better outcomes with fewer standardized test, and should serve as a guide.
  • Protect student data and make student data privacy a top priority.
    • Eliminate digital classroom mandates, allowing districts to incorporate technology as a tool rather than a curriculum replacement.
    • Allow parents the option to safeguard their child’s data by allowing families to opt out of digital instruction.
    • The computer based, state mandated Civics exams allows the possibility of collection and sharing of sensitive data of a political nature.  In order to ensure the safety of such sensitive information, this exam, especially, should be paper based.

We encourage everyone to comment on the Commissioner’s site. Send copies of your comments to your state representatives, as well. It is time to overhaul this disaster. It is time to stop clinging to this mistake.


P.S. We are under no illusion that Florida will actually use this opportunity to eliminate mandatory 3rd grade retention, test based graduation requirements or the rank and punishment of schools based almost solely on student test scores, restoring teacher autonomy in the classrooms and local control to  our elected school boards. In fact, we are pretty sure the passage of ESSA was designed to open the flood gates towards further privatization of public schools and the profit generating, data sharing Competency Based Education (CBE). CBE is meant to convert public schools into data mining computer centers, where teachers are mere facilitators and massive profits are made for investors.

We agree with Peggy Robertson, that ESSA is not an opportunity to save public schools but rather the law that will hasten its demise.  Here, she points out the irony:

“And the passage of ESSA means that the end of year test eventually could become passé.  ESSA is pushing for online, daily testing – testing that is embedded inside online curriculum.  Children will now be subjected to online modules in which they must master something before moving on to the next online module.  It might be called personalized learning, mastery learning, proficiency-based testing, competency-based education, innovative assessments, and more. ESSA is pushing for these online assessment systems, as is ALEC, and the many foundations and organizations that are hoping to cash in.

As Stephen Krashen states: Competency-based education is not just a testing program.  It is a radical and expensive innovation that replaces regular instruction with computer “modules” that students work through on their own. It is limited to what can be easily taught and tested by computer, and is being pushed by computer and publishing companies that will make substantial profits from it. “

Why do I get the overwhelming sense that Florida’s accountability plan will lead us further down the path of the profiteers and CBE? Because this is Jeb’s mistake and they will cling to it until we vote the reformers out of office.

CBE has already infiltrated our schools. Nearly every one of Florida’s public school children have already used CBE programs (like iReady, iStation and Achieve 3000) and some districts are moving towards complete conversion to CBE within the next 5 years via a recently approved pilot study. Notice how “the Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Florida’s Future — which lobbied for the program — praised the Legislature for approving” the CBE Pilot Study bill.

What can we do to save our public schools? We must educate other parents, school boards and communities about the inherent dangers in ESSA and CBE (share this video demonstrating the $270 million “pretendathon” happening in Baltimore, don’t let this happen to your district!).  It is time to refuse online curriculum and other online programs that are being used to cash in on our starving public schools and our children. And, by all means, VOTE THE REFORMERS OUT.

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Are You Smart Enough to Promote a 3rd Grader?

These students are looking to be promoted to 4th grade in Florida. Read their stories and decide who should begin 4th grade in the fall. Are you smart enough to promote a 3rd grader?

Student A reads at a 2nd grade level, has a learning disability that was identified in his former home state where he completed third grade, he just moved to Florida and will enroll in his local public school in the fall. Since he arrived in the summer, he has not taken the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA).

Student B also has a documented reading deficiency, learning disability and ADHD. His grades have been good at his local private school, which he attends on a publicly funded McKay scholarship.

Student C reads at a first grade level but has never been evaluated for learning disabilities at his Florida public school. Tired of testing and test prep, his parents had him minimally participate in the Florida Standards Assessment and the SAT10. They will enroll him in a local private school this fall.

Student D has attended a local private school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship since 1st grade. His teachers say he is doing fine, his grades are good, but he has never been evaluated with any state mandated assessments.

Student E attends his local public school and has a documented reading deficiency for which he is assigned 30 minutes on iReady each day as remediation.  Last year, he failed the FSA (was in the bottom quintile) and was retained. This year, he was absent during state testing and he refused to answer questions during retakes.

Student F had a difficult 3rd grade year. He failed almost all his classes but he, to his teacher’s amazement, scored a 2 on his FSA.

Student G attends his local public school. He has straight As in his gifted classroom. At the beginning of the school year, his progress monitoring assessment showed he read at a 9th grade level. He won the Perfect Attendance Award. Tired of incessant test prep, his parents had him minimally participate in the Florida Standards Assessment and the SAT10. He plans to stay at the local public school he attends with his 2 siblings.

Who should be promoted to 4th grade this fall?

The answer is: it depends… what county do you live in?

If you live in Brevard, Charlotte, Citrus, Hillsborough, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pasco, or Putnam, ALL children would go on to 4th grade.

However, if you live in Duval, Orange, Seminole, St. Johns, Sarasota or St Lucie, ALL students are promoted EXCEPT Student G. Student G, despite having a documented reading ability well above grade level, will be required to repeat 3rd grade. Currently, gifted, proficient children, who minimally participated in the FSA, are being retained while non-proficient children, even some who minimally participated in the FSA, will go on to 4th grade. Student E, who underperforms in all areas and refused state testing, qualifies for promotion due to state statute that forbids mandatory retention twice.

Were you smart enough to promote a 3rd grader?

It’s a trick question, because the retention of proficient students is, frankly, stupid. Clearly, the retention of proficient students who minimally participated in the 3rd grade FSA is punitive and meant to ensure compliance with mandated testing. The real question is who is directing the retaliations, I mean retentions?

Last year, during the Keep Florida Learning committee meetings, Commissioner  Pam Stewart insisted the DOE does not punish students.

If the FLDOE does not punish students, then why aren’t they stopping this abusive practice? Who is directing the retention of proficient 3rd graders and why aren’t educators in non-retention counties speaking out against these abuses? What did all 67 of Florida’s superintendents mean, last fall, when they unanimously declared they had lost confidence in the current accountability system for the students of the State of Florida?  Why aren’t we hearing protests from the thousands of teachers who converged on Tallahassee, last January, to protest high-stakes testing and other statewide education policies they claimed were harming students?

Parents are speaking out in ever increasing numbers. We are waiting for educators to join us. Who will speak out against education malpractice? Who will condemn these abusive practices? When is “enough” really enough?

What Do Florida’s School Grades REALLY tell you?

 

“What was educationally significant and hard to measure has been replaced by what is educationally insignificant and easy to measure. So now we measure how well we taught what isn’t worth learning.”

Arthur Costa, Emeritus Professor at California State University

Take a moment and think about the best moments your children have had at their public school… you know, those times where they came home so excited, talking a mile a minute, about what they have seen and learned. For my daughter, this might have been when the whole third grade spent the day celebrating “Early Man,” with art, music and skits, all dressed in fake fur, dirt smeared on their faces, hair all teased up into “Early Man Style,” culminated with a “eat with your hands” feast (Thank you, Mrs. Carter). For my son, it is probably a tie between “getting to do science experiments ALL DAY” and having a Beatnik Poetry Slam that was “Oh too cool” (Thank you Ms. Osborne). I remember similar moments from my childhood and they still make me smile. These are the moments that will make or break your child’s education experience. These are when the real learning, the kind that inspires, really happens. To everyone who has provided these moments for my children, I thank you.

This week, the Florida Department of Education will finally be releasing school grades from the 2014-15 school year, six months late, after the flawed rollout of the new Florida State Assessment (FSA). Superintendents have warned “these grades hold little value for school districts and should be viewed as such by the public.” In a recent op-ed, Orange County Superintendent and current President of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, Barbara Jenkins explained the superintendents’ opposition to the publishing of school grades, asking for “incompletes” to be issued instead. In addition, she repeats that “superintendents in the 67 Florida districts have unanimously called for a comprehensive review of our accountability system in order to better inform students, parents, educators and the public.”

“Now is the time to admit that the current system is no longer sufficient, and simply labeling schools A through F provides an inaccurate picture of what is occurring in every school.”

Here’s a News Flash: Florida’s A-F School Grading System has NEVER been sufficient, it has ALWAYS provided an inaccurate picture of what is occurring is schools. Why? Because it focuses almost entirely on standardized test scores and they are a poor reflection of real learning. We hope Superintendent Jenkins understands that even with the addition of measured “learning gains” calculated from this year’s FSA scores, the A-F grading system will still be completely flawed.

According to the 2015 PDK/Gallup Poll, these are the factors most important to parents when choosing a school.  The primary factors being quality of teaching staff, curriculum, student discipline, class size, variety of extra-curricular activities and reputation of school. Only 15% of those surveyed felt “student achievement on standardized tests” was “very important” when choosing a local public school.

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Florida School Grades do not reflect what parents deem important when choosing schools but, rather focus almost entirely on standardized test scores.  Here is the Elementary School Grades Model. Elementary schools are graded based on how well their students, in 3rd grade and up, perform on the grade level, standardized Math and English Language Arts (ELA) FSA and on the 5th grade Science FCAT. By testing students on a grade level assessment, they are looking for how many student are performing at or above average (because that is what “grade level” represents, the average performance of a child in that grade). Learning gains are calculated for all students and the learning gains of the lowest quartile of students count twice in the calculation.
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This year, in all grade levels, English Language Learners will be required to sit for hours of FSA testing, even if they arrived in the country yesterday and do not speak a word of english. Why? To provide a baseline for a learning gains calculation when they are again asked to take the assessment next year.  After two years, English Language Learners’ scores will be counted in with the rest of the student body.

Also, it is the focus on preparation for the third grade math and ELA FSA (third graders must pass the reading/ELA portion for promotion to 4th grade) that drives much of the progress monitoring and test preparation in the younger grades. Children as young as kindergarten are required to have 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction, leaving little time for creative endeavors, art, music and, in some schools, even recess. (Read here to learn about the Florida moms fighting to restore recess in our public schools, after being told there wasn’t time for daily recess “given the growing demands on schools to raise test scores”).

Middle schools, in addition to grade level performance and calculated learning gains on the Math and ELA, are rated on how well their 8th graders perform on the 8th grade Science FCAT, how many students pass the state created Civics End of Course exam (EOC) and how many students pass accelerated math (like Algebra 1) EOCs or qualifying industry certifications.

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The number of students eligible for the “Acceleration Success” calculation in the Middle School Grade Model, is determined by the number of students in the class AND all 8th graders who scored a 3 or higher on EITHER Reading or Math in their 7th grade state assessment. To be clear, the number of students deemed eligible to take a high school level Algebra 1 course in 8th grade is NOT determined by their performance on any Algebra readiness standards but on their previous year’s FSA Math and Reading scores.

The High School Grade Model includes a calculation of overall 4-year graduation rate, but otherwise is entirely determined by standardized test scores. English Language Arts scores are calculated from performance on the 9th and 10 grade FSA ELA and Math scores are determined by performance on state mandated and created EOCs. Science achievement depends on scores for the state mandated Biology 1 EOC and Social Studies achievement depends on the state mandated U.S. History EOC.

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In high schools, “Acceleration Success” is calculated as the percentage of graduates who, while in high school passed an AP, IB, or AICE examinations, earned a C or better in dual enrollment or earned a CAPE industry certification. In addition, high schools receive performance funding for enrolling students into these programs so there is a lot of “encouragement” to enroll students in these courses. Students, sometimes, find themselves enrolled in advanced classes they didn’t ask for and may have difficulty getting out of these classes if that is their desire. With the pressure to pass  AP exams, Monroe County has paid the National Math and Science Initiative, a non-profit, almost $2 million over three years to help improve participation and passing rate on AP exams, and is now requiring AP students to attend extra Saturday sessions during the school year.

What can we learn about our schools from their A-F letter grade?

School grades may be a reflection of the socioeconomic status of the student body. Researchers have been able to predict school grades based on US census data alone. Chris Tienken and colleagues “predicted the percentage of students at the district and school levels who score proficient or above on their state’s mandated standardized tests, without using any school-specific information” making the need for testing obsolete!  For more information, click here.

More concerning, when considering a local school’s grade, is whether the school has gone through any extraordinary measures to ensure high test scores from their students. Are the students engaging in creative engaging lessons that inspire a love for learning or does the curriculum resemble test prep? Have non-tested subjects, like art, music, physical education, etc, been minimized or marginalized to preserve more time for tested subjects? Is there time in the day to read fiction or fairy tales? For the youngest students, has seat work replaced time spent in free play or exploration?  For high school students, has the push towards AP classes eliminated Honors classes and/or inappropriately placed more and more students, ill prepared for the rigors of AP classes, into these classes, setting these students up for failure.  Are today’s AP courses really representative of college level courses or are they little more than test preparation for the required AP exams? Parents should be asking these questions of their highly rated schools. How many hoops have been jumped through in order to earn that coveted “A” rating? What have the students missed out on while practicing “hoop jumping”? Perhaps it is not surprising that many of Florida’s voucher students leave “A” rated public schools; are they escaping from the constant test pressure?

Likewise, some parents of children at schools that earn lower school grades must recognize the many positive experiences their school provides their children. Perhaps they have a wonderful chorus, an active theater group, a school garden… Maybe they focus more on the whole child and less on the test prep… Is the teaching staff loving and devoted to your children? These things are important and should be celebrated! Sadly, they are not even considered in the current school grade formula.

Any straight A student can tell you their final grade did not always reflect the quality of the course. Likewise, school grades may only reflect the test scores, not the quality of the education provided. In fact, parents of children in “A” schools, or in “A” districts, should be questioning whether their school focuses too much on testing and forgets the whole child. Parents need to start recognizing Florida’s A-F School grade system for what it really is: a reflection of a test focused system that has gone too far.

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