Florida Politics

House panel looks to future of FSA exams, offering few criticisms

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

Lawmakers on the House Education Committee had few criticisms Friday of a recent report on the validity of new statewide exams, which debuted with a rocky start six months ago.

In sharp contrast to senators who on Thursday were concerned and even suspicious of the report’s findings, House members heaped praises on State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and focused their questions on the future — such as how collective results of last spring’s Florida Standards Assessments will be used in the coming months to help determine school grades and evaluate teachers across Florida.

“I want to commend you for your work on this. I know it’s been tough,” Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, told Stewart, who left Friday’s hearing with a “thank you” card in hand signed by all members of the committee.

Less than a day before, senators on the Education Pre-K-12 Committee were critical about the third-party review and suspicious about whether the Florida Department of Education was involved in what was supposed to be an “independent” study. The agency reviewed two drafts for “fact checking” before the final report was released Sept. 1.

The launch of the FSA in March was plagued by login problems and a cyber attack, prompting the legislature to demand the outside review, which cost almost $600,000.

Lawmakers wanted the outside review to determine whether using FSA results would be fair, despite the problematic rollout last spring.

The outcome of the review found “serious systematic issues” in the test administration. However, while the review found the FSA results shouldn’t be used to assess individual students, the results can still be used to evaluate schools, teachers, districts or even students as a whole statewide.

Senators on Thursday spent most of their hearing questioning the review’s lead author, so they had only a couple minutes with Stewart herself. Stewart stood before the House panel for 90 minutes Friday.

Stewart again defended the accuracy of the FSA, telling the House committee the findings of the independent review is “a validation of what we knew” before it began this summer.

She emphasized “spotlights on success,” including the review’s conclusion that the FSA results could be used for “group-level” uses, such as school grades and teacher evaluations.

“Because that conclusion is in the report — that’s the reason we’re moving forward,” Stewart said.

She said parents should receive a letter this month, notifying them of where their child’s results fell in the percentile rank of student performance.

As the education department moves toward calculating school grades for 2014-15 this fall and winter, Stewart said school districts can use a “formal appeal process” to request that individual students’ test scores not be considered if those students experienced technical difficulties in the FSA that might negatively affect a school grade.

Stewart said those test scores won’t automatically be discounted because “in so doing, we could hurt a school grade” if students scored well, despite the hiccups.

“We don’t want to take that [score] away from anyone merely because they experienced technical difficulties,” she said.

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