2016 Third Grade FSA Scores, Honor Roll Students and Other Baloney

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.


SB1360: Baloney on Rye ADDENDUM

This is an addendum to our previous blog, “SB1360: Baloney on Rye is Still Full of Baloney” :

It has been brought to our attention that it is unclear whether the SAT score targets described in SB 1360 reflect scores from the current SAT or from the “newly designed” SAT, which will debut later this year (info here and here). The redesigned SAT will have a maximum score of 1600, compared to the current SAT maximum score of 2400. Since the exam is yet to be administered, the percentile ranking of scores on the new SAT can only be predicted. It is estimated that a score of 1200 (that required to be exempt from Florida’s U.S. History EOC) will be closer to the 75th percentile on the new SAT (not the 15% we stated in our blog).

Additional comparisons with SB1360’s target scores for the ACT, suggest that exemptions for Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2 EOCs may be closer to the 50th to 75th percentiles, respectively. So, SB1360’s required scores may be more “rigorous” than we first thought, but will they be appropriate? It turns out neither the old nor the new the SAT assess math skills beyond basic geometry. Why are we allowing scores on an assessment that does not test beyond basic geometry to exempt students from their Algebra 2 EOC, which covers up to Trigonometry concepts? We hope the Senate Education committees will address this.

Since there are dramatic differences between the performance level associated with the same reported score, we feel SB1360 needs to define exactly which SAT exam (old or new) it is referring to. We also question why Florida would put into statute target scores from an exam that is yet to be administered (even if it does have the same name)? Are Florida students expected to field test the new SAT and then have those scores used for accountability purposes? Remember how well that worked out for the 2015 FSA?

Also, there are significant concerns regarding the math portions of the newly designed SAT, especially for low income and English language learner (more here). The new format of math questions will require higher level verbal and reasoning skills and is predicted to put English language learners and low income children at a significant disadvantage. Given the ever increasing population of low income, English language learner, and immigrant students in our public schools (Miami Dade is currently expecting ~8,000 new immigrant students this school year), why is Florida choosing an exam that would put those students, their schools and districts, at a distinct disadvantage. How is that a fair accountability assessment?

Our initial blog may have underestimated the “rigor” of SB1360’s target scores. If they represent scores from the new SAT, they may be more “rigorous” than we thought. Does this make us feel any better about this bill?


Reviewing the new SAT only raises more questions about the fairness of an accountability system that uses these scores as metrics and in this manner. Students with high standardized test scores (even in subjects unrelated to the course they are taking) will be exempt from taking final exams/EOCs. Students with lower standardized test scores (many who will be immigrants, disadvantaged and/or english language learners), will not only be required to take the exams, but they will be worth 30% of their course grades and (for Algebra 1) passing will be required for graduation. “Smart kids” (often wealthier, white students) will no longer need to take the U.S. History or other state EOCs. They will be exempt from the Algebra 2 EOC based on scores that don’t test the course content; their course grades will reflect their classroom performance and will not suffer from poor performance on the EOC. It appears that students and schools with high test scores (like Seminole County, which has been lobbying hard for this bill, originally calling it the “Seminole Solution”) will require significantly less testing than their less advantaged counterparts.

This does not describe a fair, equitable, uniform education system. This describes the misuse of standardized test scores.

This will not “fix” anything.

This is Accountabaloney.

SB1360: Baloney on Rye is Still Full of Baloney

On 1/20/2015, 10:32am, an addendum was published to this blog.  You can find it here.

“A Baloney Sandwich on Rye, is still full of baloney. Changing the bread doesn’t make it roast beef.”     – Sue Woltanski

Florida’s Legislature has created a massive Education Accountability system that is based on the (flawed) assumption that standardized test scores are an accurate measure of education quality.  The performance of young students on an annual test of grade level proficiency is used to evaluate teachers, administrators, schools and districts. Performance on these tests can result in retention, remediation and, possibly, failure to graduate with little or no input from classroom teachers. This test-focused system has led to a significant narrowing of curriculum with some schools being little more than test preparation factories. Florida’s test-and-punish accountability system is resulting in the destruction of the very public education system it was designed to monitor.

More than 3,000 people marched in Tallahassee last week (1/14/16), drawing attention to the failed accountability system, claiming “Enough is Enough.” The denouncement of Florida’s test-obsessed accountability system did not mean the marchers were “anti-test.” As FEA President Joanne McCall pointed out: “Teachers are not opposed to testing. Heck, we invented it.” Virtually every taxpayer believes there should be fiscal accountability in our schools, but the current system is destroying, not evaluating, our schools.

Test focused accountability is Accountabaloney.

Peter Greene wrote an excellent blog describing “The Test-Centered School” where “regardless of what its mission or vision statement may say, test results are the guiding force.” (Read it here.)

“And that ultimately is the problem with test-centered schools; the relationship between the school and the student is turned upside down. Instead of asking, “How does this help us meet the educational needs of our students,” administrators ask, “How will this affect our test scores?” In a test-centered school, the school is not there to serve the students– the students are there to meet the needs of the school. And no– there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that test prep serves student needs, nor that test results are an important indicator of their education.”

Florida’s parents will immediately find his descriptions familiar (for some Florida examples, read here and here).

Last summer, a coalition from Seminole County proposed a “solution” to Florida’s testing woes: change the test. Our inaugural blog questioned this “solution”, (read it here) suggesting that the “Sunshine Solution” ignored the bigger issue regarding how test scores are currently used, and misused, in Florida.

Senator Gaetz, who sits on the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee and chairs the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee, must not have read our blog because he has turned the “Sunshine Solution” into SB1360, a bill that allows districts to choose from an approved list of alternatives to the $300 million Florida State Assessment (FSA) AND to allow students passing certain exams with high enough scores to be exempt from taking other state required assessments. (You can read the entire 52 page bill here)

Senator Gaetz says he favors “choice”, not doing away with the accountability system. For the record, this bill allows districts to choose an alternative assessment to the FSA but, if the district chooses to stick with the FSA, it will NOT allow students to choose one of the alternative assessments.

“It’s not going to be what the anti-assessment people want,” Gaetz acknowledged (in this article). “This bill is not an answer to those who say. ‘let’s take down the goal posts and not measure progress at all.’ ”

For the record, we are NOT against assessment. We are against accountabaloney and SB1360 is full of it. This bill does nothing to address the USE (or better, mis-use) of standardized test scores in Florida and will only complicate, confuse and disrupt an already overly complicated system.

Under SB 1360, districts will be allowed to choose the ACT Aspire assessment in place of the current 3rd to 8th grade FSA. ACT Aspire was launched in April 2014 and is currently in use, or planned for use, for grade level testing in 6 states (info here).  The exam is computer based, but offers a pencil/paper option. Total testing time, per student, is estimated to be 4 hours (significantly less than the FSA), and includes Math, Reading, Writing and Science. As a norm-referenced test it, like the ACT and SAT, is technically not the appropriate assessment for the standards based curriculum we are trying to assess in Florida. Use of the ACT Aspire would require another Board of Education cut score process to determine passing levels in Florida. We wonder whether our senators are having second thoughts about the decision to hire AIR as the creator of the FSA, given that ACT was in the final group of vendors vying for the top assessment spot in Florida back in 2014 (when Florida dropped out of the PARCC, more here)?

Currently, passing the Algebra 1 FSA End of Course exam (EOC) is a Florida high school graduation requirement. In addition, a student’s score on the Algebra 1 EOC counts for 30% of the student’s course grade and is used to evaluate the teacher’s effectiveness, as well as the school and district’s grades. There is no reported evidence that the Algebra 1 FSA EOC has ever been shown to be fair, valid or reliable for assessing at-risk sub populations of students. Additionally, there is no evidence that the EOC has been show to be a valid assessment for the myriad of ways it is used.

Under SB1360, a student’s Algebra 1 EOC graduation requirement could be satisfied by obtaining specific score on the EOC, ACT Aspire, ACT, PSAT or SAT, OR by passing certain “rigorous” industry certifications including Associate Level Certified Electronic Technician, Cisco Certified Network Professional, FAA Ground School, FAA Aviation Mechanic Technician-Airframe, FAA Aviation Maintenance Technician-Powerplant, ComTIA A+, Global Logistics Associate, MSSC Certified Production Technician and Oracle Certified Associates: Database. What is ComTIA A+ and why is it, or FAA Ground School, an appropriate substitute for Algebra instruction? What was the purpose of adding the Algebra graduation requirement in the first place?  Do these certifications options fulfill the initial legislative intent?

Under SB 1360, students who earn appropriate scores or certifications are also exempt from having to take the EOC (worth 30% of their course grade) when enrolled in the Algebra 1 course. How will the state use EOC scores to assess teacher effectiveness or school grade when only some of the students are taking the EOC? What will happen to a class that requires some students to take an exam worth 30% of their grade while exempting others? How will it affect a student’s attentiveness and diligence in a class, when they know they have already passed the final before the course has even begun?

Additionally, SB1360 defines the Math SAT score necessary to be exempt from the Algebra 1 EOC as 420. According to the College Board, this score represents the 6th percentile, meaning 94% of students would be able to achieve this score on the SAT. Keep in mind only 77.8% of Florida’s student graduate high school and, last year, only 56% passed the Algebra 1 FSA EOC, making a SAT score of 420 hardly seem “rigorous”. (data from https://www.collegeboard.org)

Similar situations will occur for the Geometry and Algebra 2 EOC. In 2015, 53% of Geometry students passed the FSA EOC, yet the SAT score required for exemption in SB 1360 will be 450, or 10th percentile. In 2015 only 36% of Algebra 2 students passed the new, clearly flawed FSA EOC (read about it here), but the SAT score required for exemption in SB 1360 will only be 500, representing the 18th percentile. What is the point of even giving the Algebra 2 EOC if the state plans on offering an exemption to as many as 82% of the students?

Most interesting may be the US History EOC. Under SB1360, if a student scores a 1200 on the SAT (sum of Critical Reading, Writing and Mathematics scores) they are exempt from taking the U.S. History EOC. This score represents the 15th percentile, meaning 85% of students would score at or above it. Why even have a U.S. History EOC if 85% of the students would be exempt from it because of basic math, reading and writing skills? Wasn’t the intent of the U.S. History EOC to assure students had a basic knowledge of U.S. History? Apparently, that is no longer a priority.

In Florida’s test-centered schools it is easy to imagine what will happen if SB 1360 were to pass. Already students are being placed in AP courses they don’t want and, perhaps, are not interested in, to boost their high school’s grade. If SB 1360 passes, schools and districts should be anticipated to choose the assessments that are most likely to give their schools the best school grades and students will be pushed into certifications and alternate tests based not on the students interests but, rather, on what is perceived to be in the best interest of the school’s grade. Expect an increased number of low performing math students placed in industry certification programs whether they want them or not. Districts will be working furiously to ensure they offer the certifications that are easiest to pass.

Last Wednesday, the Senate Education Appropriations Committee held a workshop focused on Alternative Assessments. The details of SB 1360 were presented and committee members heard testimony from officials from testing companies (you can watch the meeting here). The overwhelming response from the participating senators was very positive. Senator Legg had concerns regarding the timeline but said “I think this is great stuff.” Senator Montford said “I guess the question then is, well, why didn’t we do this already, or why are we even questioning doing it now?”

This overwhelmingly positive response makes us wonder if these senators, who have been the major designers of Florida’s failed test-focused Accountability system, even understand how the system works. Student performance on state tests is used to promote, retain and remediate students; teacher evaluations and pay depends to a large part on student test scores, school grades and property values depend on a grading system essentially entirely based on test scores. Our accountability system depends on having a valid metric. The flawed rollout of the 2015 highlighted this: superintendents lost faith in the FSA and its administration; they complained about the State’s inability to measure learning gains; they questioned the validity of the FSA and the results of the “independent” Alpine Validity study (which only bothered to assess a narrow definition of “validity” for 6 of the 17 new FSA exams, full report here); they called for a complete review of the entire system. SB 1360 seems to address the superintendents’ concerns by saying “any test score will do, as long as it is a test score.”

Senator Gaetz summarized the 2015 FSA fiasco this way (read more here): “When all the players on the field and all the coaches on the sidelines no longer believe that the game is being called according to fair rules, it’s very, very difficult to have a meaningful experience.” It IS difficult to have any “meaningful experience”, or trust in the current accountability system but, by proposing SB 1360, Senator Gaetz proposes to keep the same unfair rules but, using his analogy, to allow each district to decide what sport they are playing! This is accountabaloney.

Florida’s Accountability system is broken. The foundation is crumbling. Superficial fixes that fail to address, or even consider, the basic structure of the system, are not useful. SB 1360, with its array of tests and exemptions, will serve only to highlight to parents and students that, in Florida, test scores are king. It will be clear that Florida schools no longer serve the needs of our students. In Florida, the students (and their test scores) will be used, only, to serve the needs of the school.

“When your foundation is shaky, you don’t keep building on top of it, you knock it down and start over.”  – Mike Rowe

It’s time for policy makers to listen to the superintendents, parents and teachers, from across the state, who can see through all the baloney and just want a sound and respected accountability system in place.  The current foundation is shaky. Is it time to knock it down and start over or will they allow it to collapse under its own weight?