For several years, Florida parents and teachers have bristled at the centerpiece of the state’s so-called education reforms. “Teacher accountability” is the political term for it, but what it boils down to is high-stakes testing, and lots of it.
The anxiety level has kicked up another notch this year, as Florida schools are making the transition from the long-used FCAT to the new, more difficult, Common Core-based Florida Standards Assessments. Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has warned that the number of district schools with D or F grades could double.
With the Legislature about to begin its 2015 session, is Tallahassee finally listening? Three different proposed bills, an executive action and a Department of Education “investigation” suggest that lawmakers are. Sort of.
This will be the year Florida’s public schools’ test-based accountability system gets tweaked. But will the changes be enough to satisfy stressed-out students, teachers and parents?
THROWING US A BONE
Even former governor Jeb Bush’s chief education policy point-person, Patricia Levesque, now says that test scores should make up less than 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. That would require quite a turnaround for Republican lawmakers who, with strong pushes from Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future (FFF), fought to implement the link between student test scores and teacher evaluations over vehement teacher and parent objections. Florida law now mandates that 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations be based on their students’ test scores.
This session, Sen. John Legg, R-Pasco County, has introduced SB 616, which would scale that percentage back to 40. He also wants to reduce the number of end-of-course exams students take.
Duval County School Board member and former chairwoman Becki Couch applauds Legg for going in the right direction. But rather than simply lower the percentage, Couch, a teacher herself, wants lawmakers to make more meaningful changes to the teacher-evaluations statutes.
“I’d like to see Sen. Legg engage in a conversation with teachers about what performance looks like,” she says.
Parent advocates reacted more bluntly: “Sen. Legg’s bill does nothing for children,” says Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the advocacy organization Fund Education Now. “If Sen. Legg is sincere, he needs to pay close attention to what his colleagues are telling him. He needs to not hurt children in this process.”
Oropeza references a bill by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, which would hold students harmless from the results of the new FSA until the Department of Education collects enough data to make sure the test is reliable and valid, and determine where to set cut-off scores, or floor levels for student promotion and graduation.
FCAT scores were previously used to evaluate students’ progress and in school-grading formulas. Then the Legislature decided to directly connect that test to teacher evaluations, too.
The controversial SB 6 was introduced, passed and vetoed by then-governor Charlie Crist in 2010. But former state senator John Thrasher didn’t give up; he successfully rammed it through the Legislature again in 2011, and this time he got Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.
Make no mistake: Despite the nods to reform, Jeb Bush’s zeal for high-stakes testing is still the Republicans’ default setting.
“We’re seeing a real doubling down on Jeb’s policy to protect his legacy as he runs for president,” says parent advocate Colleen Wood, a board member for The Network for Public Education and founder of the St. Johns County-based advocacy organization 50th No More.
With Bush’s 2016 presidential bid imminent, Wood predicts no major changes to the testing regiment in the coming legislative session. The minor tweaks offered by Legg amount to a “pat on the head. They’re throwing us a bone in hopes that parents will quiet down. But this contingent of parents didn’t start yesterday, and it’s not going away tomorrow.”
Though Bush left the governor’s mansion in 2007, his state-level education policy foundation, FFF, led by Levesque, has been front and center in education legislation ever since. And so it is somewhat surprising that Levesque has come out in support of lowering the test’s stakes.
(A former lobbyist, Levesque has been criticized for pushing legislation that may have benefitted her former corporate clients, which include education giants K12, Pearson and Amplify. In 2013, she withdrew her firm’s lobbying registration while under fire from In the Public Interest, a left-leaning government watchdog group, which questioned the blurry lines between FFF and Bush’s other, national non-profit, the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Both the FFF and the FEE shared the same P.O. box with Levesque’s firm.)
It’s hard to know whether the Bush camp has been reading research, which doesn’t support the high-stakes link to teacher evaluations, or the political tea leaves — a state full of test-weary parents.
Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, has been listening to parents’ complaints. Mayfield, like many parents and educators, is so frustrated with the entire system that she wants to give districts the ability to opt out of standards-based tests altogether.
Judging from an action alert obtained from an email network of the Tea Party, which strongly opposes all things Common Core (a fact that could prove troubling for Bush’s White House aspirations), Mayfield’s bill could gain traction: “Common Core has created a culture of extreme testing and oppressive federal intervention on students, teachers and school administrators.”
Oropeza says that the opt-out movement is a signal from parents that Florida’s accountability system is making their children miserable. Those tests determine whether a teacher gets a good evaluation, the grades of the entire school, and whether the child will be promoted.
“Everything is bearing down on children,” she says. “Where’s the breaking point?”
Mayfield’s proposal may offer a clue. HB 877 would permit districts to administer what are called norm-referenced tests (NRT) in lieu of implementing the FSA. NRTs, which are used by many private schools, put children’s evaluations on a bell curve, but don’t give much information about what a child needs to learn in order to advance.
“We’ve already had poor families opting out of high-stakes tests,” Wood says. “They’re opting out of public school. It’s called vouchers.”
In other words, when the testing pressure becomes too much to handle, parents send their kids to voucher schools, which don’t administer the standards-based tests. That choice was made much easier by last year’s expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program to middle-class families. Previously, the state’s voucher program was available only to low-income students.