On a 6-1 vote this week, the Florida Board of Education approved Education Commissioner Pam Stewart’s test score and school grade proposals. But other proposals are expected to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session.
Board members considered where to set two critical benchmarks of the state's education accountability system: "cut scores" that determine the levels of achievement students get based on their performances on standardized tests, and the school grades tied to how well students do on those tests. Stewart calls it the “right approach and right balance.”
“Including the percent of students performing on grade level and above,” said Stewart. “Approximately half of the school grade will be learning gains. It will move students to on grade-level performance. And I think it still keeps our focus on our most vulnerable students.”
The changes became necessary when the Department of Education moved to the Florida Standards Assessments: a battery of tests given to public school students. Stewart's proposals led to a rare battle between board members, who were appointed by Republican Governor Rick Scott, and a coalition of business and education-reform groups that generally back the GOP's education policies.
The system adopted by the board would see 189 schools receive "F" grades for the 2014-15 school year, according to a simulation run by DOE. Under one of three options proposed by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an advocacy group founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, the number of "F" schools would have been 503.
“My litmus test for education reform and education policy has always been: If you can’t explain it in 20 minutes at the PTO [Parent-Teacher Organization] meeting, it’s not going to work,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who chairs the Senate's education-funding committee, and also served as Okaloosa County School Superintendent.
“And the problem we have now in education policy in our state, is that we have a system that is over-complicated, with duplicative testing,” Gaetz said. “Testing that parents and teachers in some cases don’t understand. And testing, frankly, whose validity and reliability is open to question.”
Gaetz is sponsoring Senate Bill 1360, which would allow districts to use national standardized tests like the SAT and ACT instead of the state's exams. SB-1360, says Gaetz, has bipartisan support in the Senate. But what it doesn’t have at this point is a counterpart measure in the House.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart shied away from addressing Gaetz’ bill directly, but said it could complicate Florida’s accountability efforts.
Gaetz said the current test also wasn't completely lined up to the state's education standards and that tests like the SAT and ACT can measure whether students are ready to move on.
The bottom line, says state Sen. Don Gaetz: “If the national tests are good enough to get you into a college, it ought to be good enough to graduate you from a Florida high school."