TAMPA — Florida school superintendents say their districts are being overwhelmed by state-required testing, and on Monday, they asked the Board of Education for help.
The superintendents are urging lawmakers and top education officials to make three changes this school year: Suspend the state’s school grading system as students and teachers adjust to new standards and new online tests. Put the brakes on all consequences for students when it comes to state testing. And start scaling back the percentage of student test scores that are factored into teachers’ evaluations and their salaries.
Following a three-day meeting of state superintendents last week, Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia on Monday delivered those recommendations and detailed superintendents’ “grave concerns” to the state Board of Education at its meeting in Tampa.
“This school year is one of transition and implementation,” Elia said. “The Florida Legislature has provided some relief for the transition, but certainly challenges remain.”
During the same meeting, at the Tampa Airport Marriott, the board unanimously approved a 2015-16 education budget proposal of $19.6 billion that will go before the Legislature in the spring. The board’s request — which mirrors Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed education budget — calls for an increase in per-student spending, bringing funding to $7,176 per student, a 3.4 percent increase over this year. It also includes $80 million for technology, twice as much as this year.
The last couple years have seen big changes in Florida when it comes to testing.
This school year, the new Florida Standards — based on the Common Core State Standards adopted by most states — are supposed to be in place across all grade levels for the first time. In the spring, students will take the new Florida Standards Assessment for reading, writing and math. For all subjects not covered by state tests, districts will give their own end-of-course assessments.
“There is a lack of confidence among parents and the public, certainly among educators, that grades derived from the results will adequately reflect performance of the schools,” Elia said.
When it comes to the superintendents’ pleas, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the state education department and board don’t have the power to make most of the changes they seek.
“Most of Superintendent Elia’s points are controlled by the Legislature,” Stewart told reporters after the meeting. “The only part I might be able to do are some tweaks with school grading.”
Stewart said the state has transitioned to new tests before — for example, switching from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to the FCAT 2.0.
“We got through that,” she said. “We can and will get through these changes.”
Elia’s remarks came as school boards, parents and teachers across the state have brought into question the number of tests students are required to take, with some calling for the option to opt out of state testing entirely.
“Let me stress there are high-stakes assessments for students that affect their promotion, their retention and their graduation,” Elia said. “They are also high-stakes for teachers as student performance is tied to their compensation and job retention.”
Students must pass the state reading test in the third-grade to move on to the fourth grade. Additionally, to graduate with a standard diploma, students must pass the 10th-grade reading assessment and the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam.
There are required exams for kindergarteners, students with disabilities and those who are still learning English, Elia said.
“It’s important to see the full context of the number of assessments that are given so we can make determinations of what’s appropriate,” she said.
She noted that some of the challenges she mentioned are ones that her school district doesn’t face.
Across the state, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is comprised of students’ test scores. In Hillsborough, the evaluation system — fueled by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — calls for 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to come from test scores. And the district has been giving its own end-of-course exams for years.
But Hillsborough officials have said they do face the challenge of not having enough technology to administer the amount of computerized tests required by the state in a timely manner. Elia said another problem is that many students haven’t gotten the keyboard and computer literacy training they need to take online tests.
She also asked the board for guidance for how districts should respond to parents who request to opt their children out of state testing.
“It is imperative that we are consistent and speak with a common voice in all 67 districts,” she said.
Stewart said after the meeting that she encourages superintendents to consult their attorneys over how they should respond to concerned parents.
“There’s guidance within the statutes,” she said.
Education board members said they listened closely to the superintendents’ concerns.
“We understand superintendents are uneasy,” Board member John Colon said.
Addressing Elia, Chairman Gary Chartrand said the board takes seriously the concerns she shared.
“We look forward to working with you and the legislators to make sure we do the right thing for our kids,” Chartrand said.