Florida Politics

Senators question findings, independence of FSA testing review

The state has faced criticism over the new Florida Standards Assessments.
The state has faced criticism over the new Florida Standards Assessments. Miami Herald file

As state education officials continue to defend controversial, new statewide exams that debuted in the spring, some state senators Thursday voiced concerns about a recent third-party review of the test’s validity — even voicing some suspicions about the Florida Department of Education’s potential involvement in what was supposed to be an “independent” study.

Lawmakers demanded the outside probe after the launch of the Florida Standards Assessments six months ago was plagued by login problems and even a cyber attack.

The outcome of the review, released Sept. 1, found “serious systematic issues” in the test administration, so much so that it found the “FSA did not meet the normal rigor and standardization expected with a high-stakes assessment program.”

Yet the review concluded that the test results are still valid enough to be used in teacher evaluations and to determine school grades but not to assess individual students, a finding that perplexed several senators on the Education Pre-K-12 Committee.

“I was expecting somebody to say it’s valid or it’s not ... and now I’m being told it’s really a matter of degree,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education was quick to claim the review validated the test’s accuracy and the agency doubled down on that position earlier Thursday in advance of the Senate hearing. The agency issued a five-point fact-check aimed at “setting the record straight” against those who have “incorrect interpretations of the report.”

Some senators had questions about whether the education department had a hand in the study, given the agency’s timely reaction only minutes after it was released earlier this month.

The review’s lead author, Andrew Wiley of Alpine Testing Solutions, said officials at the Department of Education were given at least two drafts of the review to “fact check,” starting about a week before Sept. 1.

He said officials’ comments were limited to criticisms of tables they felt weren’t clear and that no one from the agency suggested how the findings should be phrased.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said her staff received the final report the evening before it was released so that a press release could be prepared.

Senators said they found the agency’s access to drafts of the review concerning.

The key feature of this report was that it was supposed to be independent.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood

“The key feature of this report was that it was supposed to be independent,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. “That’s how it was sold to us to support the idea, and to the public as well, to calm people’s fears about this testing.”

Trinity Republican Sen. John Legg, the committee chairman, said he had “cause for concern on both ends,” because while the state agency quickly praised the report, some superintendents in the state were equally as swift to condemn it, he said.

Wiley said “there is room for professional disagreement” in the review’s conclusions.

“I think there is data in the report that can be looked at and pointed to that says maybe the use of these test scores would not be appropriate, and quite frankly there was rigorous debate within our own group of people,” Wiley said. “This was not an easy decision.”

Kristen Clark can be reached at kclark@MiamiHerald.com and @ByKristenMClark.