'Disastrous' school grade policy averted

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MIAMI - On February 28, 2012, I spoke before the State Board of Education (SBOE) regarding the proposed changes to Florida's school grade calculation.  As you are aware, many across the state were deeply concerned with the potential negative ramifications that the proposed changes would have had on schools, particularly those with significant numbers of English Language Learners (ELL) and/or Students With Disabilities (SWD). 

The SBOE accepted many of the recommendations put forward by superintendents and other interested parties calling for a transition period to higher standards, an opportunity for broader input from parents and practitioners, and the development of collaborative solutions. 

The State Board of Education ultimately voted to accept the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver, however with a number of conditions.  First among these is the establishment of a task force charged with developing a methodology to address the inclusion of both ESE and ELL student performance in a manner which appropriately reflects realistic achievement targets for these students. This task force is to be made up of parents, superintendents, experts and representatives of the Department of Education.  The task force is to develop and present recommendations to the SBOE at their next regularly scheduled meeting. We are cautiously optimistic, as it remains to be seen if the task force will have genuine influence regarding the inclusion of ELL or SWD students in performance calculations. 

Secondly, the Commissioner of Education has been directed to engage in ongoing dialogue with the U.S. Department of Education regarding how ESE and ELL students will be factored in to school performance ratings. In addition, the following recommendations were accepted by the State Board:

  • the automatic "F" trigger was not accepted, rather for schools in which at least 25% of tested students do not achieve proficiency in reading, the school grade will be lowered by one letter grade.  Additionally, this sanction would not be applied until the 2012-2013 school year;
  • middle schools will not be penalized for not having enrolled all eighth grade students in Algebra 1 this year;

  • science performance will not be factored into this year's school grade for high schools due to the fact that this is a standard setting year for the Biology EOC exam; and

  • schools will not be penalized for a lack of learning gains of the lowest 25 percent of students in reading and math because there is not a comparable assessment by which to measure performance this year.


The coming together of a diverse group of stakeholders whose common interest is the education of the children of Florida is largely responsible for averting the passage of policy which would have likely been disastrous for public schools across the state. The SBOE's action proves that democracy is alive and well and that the power to create change truly lies in the hands of the people.  

Following are my notes used for testimony before the SBOE: 

Today, while we are gathered here to define proficiency, while we are considering changes to the school grading formula, children across the state are sitting in their classrooms taking the FCAT writing exam, exams for which they have prepared and practiced.  Each teacher has been provided a rubric outlining what constitutes a 6, a 5, a 4 and so on. They have instructed their students based on a defined set of standards. I think we can all agree that it would not be right to now change the criteria within that rubric and apply those changes to test being taken today.  It just wouldn't be right. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that that is what is being proposed here today as you consider significantly altering the method by which schools are to be graded beginning this year. 

Let me be clear, I support increased rigor, I support accountability – I believe that everyone in this room can agree that we are morally obligated to ensure that Florida's children receive an outstanding education….what I am here asking for today is that the methodology that is used to measure the success of students and schools is one which is fair, is reasonable, and which does not unnecessarily demoralize and disincentivize both teachers and students.

The proposed changes to Florida's grading system such as the inclusion of English language learners' performance after just one year or requiring that any school which does not achieve 25 percent reading proficiency should automatically receive an "F", wrongly assumes that all schools and districts are operating on a level playing field.  For example, schools where thirty, forty percent, or more of the students are not native English speakers are going to be at a disadvantage in achieving reading proficiency.  That does not mean that good instruction is not happening in that building or that those students are failures.

In Miami-Dade we have over 63,000 students whose first language is not English.  We know that we have students who are in their second year of language instruction who only achieve a 1 or a 2 on the FCAT reading assessment, but in math they achieve a 3 or a 4; they are learning! 

I myself speak 5 languages.  Many would say that I am fairly fluent in Spanish and I would agree, but I am here to tell you that if I were asked to sit for an exam given entirely in Spanish and expected to perform as well as a native speaker, I would have difficulty.  Does that mean that I am a failure?  Is it reasonable then to penalize students, teachers, and schools for failing to achieve proficiency in reading after only one year of English instruction when research clearly tells us that it takes more than that to achieve linguistic proficiency? No!  It does, however, make sense to measure progress toward that goal and to give credit for learning gains which are made, and we support that.  The proposal to include the performance of ELL students in the calculation of school grades after just one year of instruction is not reasonable and will disproportionately impact immigrant communities across the state.

It has been indicated that one of the conditions of the federal government's waiver of NCLB is that there must be inclusion of the performance of ESE and ELL students in the accountability model.  I would submit that while that is accurate and we support it, the requirement does not specify how to achieve it.

Requiring that non-native English speaking students achieve proficiency on the FCAT after just one year of English language instruction or that the performance of even profoundly disabled students be included in school grade calculations is unreasonable. I think we can agree that it is inappropriate to expect all students with a disability, regardless of their specific exceptionality, to perform on level with their non-disabled peers. The Department, I believe, agrees that this is unreasonable, in as much as it has announced that the grading of ESE centers would be taken off the table.

It stands to reason then that a reassessment of the rule which would effectively penalize traditional schools that offer inclusion should receive similar consideration. Imposing sanctions for the performance of ELL or ESE students runs counter to democratic ideals and could set up situations where one group is looked upon unfavorably because it is perceived that they may be "dragging down" a school's rating. This is not in the best interest of anyone, and I don't believe it represents the intent of the Department or this Board.

On September 14, 2011, I traveled to Washington D.C. to provide testimony before a congressional Committee on Education and the Workforce. In my comments I called for flexibility in the application of sanctions and held out Miami Edison Senior High, a school where over 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, as an example where performance is improving and reforms should be given adequate time to take root without the application of penalties such as staff replacement or school closure. I told the members of the committee that Florida had it right when we opted to add additional component such as graduation rate and participation in advanced academic offerings to the high school grading formula.  I believed we were on the right tract in recognizing that there are many facets that define the performance of a school and not merely one indicator on a test.

Unfortunately, some of the changes such as the "F" trigger being considered today threaten to undo much of the progress that has been made in our state and may undercut the creditability of Florida's accountability system, which has become a model for others.  Projections indicate that under the proposal before you today, Miami-Edison would fall from a C to an F, once again labeling the school as failing in spite of increasing its graduation rate to over 74 percent, up 25 points in only two years, and increasing the number of students considered "college ready" from 38% to 70% in the same time period even though over 25 percent of the students are identified as "English Language Learners."

I have heard the argument that the "F" trigger is necessary because, as was stated in an FAQ put out by the department on Monday, "All students, no matter how they are classified, have to demonstrate proficiency on the Grade 10 FCAT to earn a standard diploma."  That is not exactly the case and is perhaps a bit misleading or simplistic.  First, in a school such as Miami Edison students taking the 10th grade FCAT for the first time may struggle for a number of reasons including their ELL status; however they have up to three opportunities to retake the reading portion of the FCAT.  Under the current formula schools may only earn bonus points for successful re-takers. Further, for those who do not pass the FCAT they may still earn a standard Florida Diploma and be accepted to colleges, universities and other post-secondary institutions by achieving a concordant score on either the ACT or SAT. In the case of Miami Edison the majority of students graduated not merely achieving concordance, but scoring well enough to be considered "College Ready," and yet under these proposed criteria that school would be deemed failing.  Let us not lose site of the fact that the FCAT being used for school grades is a one-time snapshot in the spring of a student's 10th Grade year, it is not the only means for a student to meet the graduation requirement.

Indeed, by the state's own calculations, if the new standards were in effect this year, the number of "F" schools in Florida would jump from 38 to over 250, while the number of "A" schools would drop by over 500 schools. How could this be?  Does it make sense that in just one year school performance could fall so drastically, or does it instead call into question the validity of the grading system as a whole, thus undermining the public's confidence in the quality of our public schools?

I submit that Florida's public schools, notwithstanding the challenges, are sound. I submit that performance is improving, and I and the other Superintendents here today support increased standards and accountability, but we need to question the pace and timing of these proposed changes.  Right now there are not adequate data to support these proposed changes.  The new FCAT 2.0 and EOC tests have only been in place for one year, when at least two years of data are required to accurately set standards. 

The Department itself admits that many of the simulations and discussions are "based on estimates."  It is my opinion that decisions regarding school grading and accountability should rely less on "estimates" and more on trend data that have stood the test of statistical analysis, validity, and reliability.

Over the past several weeks a very interesting thing has happened; issues surrounding educational policy, accountability, and quality have leaped to the front pages, and are the subject of community meetings, board meetings, and the water cooler.  People are talking about what makes a quality schools, and that is a great thing.  It would be my hope that we collectively seize this opportunity to engage the broader community and step back from the proposed changes put forth today, and instead allow for a second year of FCAT 2.0 results to be analyzed so that the changes that are ultimately adopted are based on solid analysis and not merely estimates rooted in hypothetical performance.  The stakes are too high and the consequences too significant for us to simply "take a best guess." 

Respectfully, I ask that this Board listen to concerns raised by parents, superintendents, teachers, and technical assessment staff and opt instead to provide an opportunity for broad input, public Involvement, reasonable implementation timelines, and realistic goals that strike a balance between raising the bar for achievement and respecting the individual challenges faced by students and circumstances surrounding many schools with high percentages of Exceptional Education and ELL students.

My testimony today would be incomplete without a nod to my heritage and my own personal experience.  You see, today, I stand before you calling for modifications to the proposed accountability rule which recognizes the struggles of students faced with challenges and the efforts of teachers and schools which endeavor to support them.  I represent what could be. You see, when I came to this country at just 16 years old I was unable to speak the language. I was one of 6 siblings living in a one-room apartment in my native country. I come from a family where no one had ever gone to college or even completed high school. I faced many of the same obstacles that the students at schools like Miami Edison do.  Would I be where I am today if I had been labeled a failure after one year in this country? Were it not for our core belief that all children can learn and that all students deserve a quality public education, I would not have broken out of my own cycle of poverty.

There is no need to rush to a decision today. A response to the federal government is not required until July 15, 2012, allowing time for input from parents of ESE and ELL students, superintendents and other stakeholders.  Establish a taskforce which can go point by point and collaboratively craft recommendations which align to the requirements of the waiver, recognize the unique challenges faced by many students, and support Florida's transition to more rigorous academic standards.

In closing, let me reiterate that we strongly support enhanced standards, increased rigor, and the use of accountability measures to inform and improve practice.  What we are asking for today is the application of reasonableness to implementation and recognition that a period of transition should be provided to ensure that the performance of our schools is accurately reflected and that students and teachers are not unfairly penalized or stigmatized.

Thank you.

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