State fails its own school districts

Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho is among many urging the state to scrap flawed test results.
Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho is among many urging the state to scrap flawed test results.

The long-festering dispute between local school districts and an unreasonable Florida Department of Education turned into open revolt last week as superintendents across the state finally declared that they’ve lost confidence in the state’s testing and grading system.

The well-justified howl from the districts follows years of mounting frustration with a flawed system that unfairly affects schools and students, and the refusal of state education leaders to acknowledge the damage.

Essentially, the superintendents declared that they’ve had it with a so-called “accountability system” that shortchanges the teachers, students and parents across Florida, regardless of what Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and her allies in Tallahassee may think.

“We have witnessed the erosion of public support for an accountability system that was once a model for the nation,” the statement said. The superintendents called for basic changes in school testing and grading before the system inflicts greater harm on public schools.

The numerous failings of the state’s accountability system include the problematic rollout of the Florida Standards Assessment test seven months ago, the use of these scores as the sole determinant in school grading decisions and scores released many months after the tests were given and far too late to be of practical use for teachers.

In an appearance before the state education board last week, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the state’s unwillingness to acknowledge its errors “unconscionable.”

For the superintendents, the heart of the matter is the deeply flawed FSA administered last spring. A follow-up validity study issued this month concluded that “the FSA did not meet the normal rigor and standardization expected with a high-stakes assessment program.”

The school districts pleaded with Commissioner Stewart to suspend application of the results given that the test itself got a failing grade, but — even though the scores are plainly suspect and the testing process was unfair to students — she said the state would proceed as planned to use this year’s numbers.

That’s a mistake. The state lacks data to calculate year-to-year learning gains by students — another major flaw in the system — but the decision to move ahead anyway conforms to the state’s stubborn pattern of refusing to acknowledge the plain facts. That’s how this unprecedented dispute between the state and local school districts developed in the first place.

The school superintendents, to be clear, are not opposed to an accountability system. Public education needs one, but it has to be fair and accurate. Their statement merely echoes the complaints they’ve been hearing from parents and teachers across the state. They’re the ones demanding change.

We urge the Department of Education to heed the call from the local districts. Suspend application of results from last spring’s test, which the superintendents accurately described as “a rushed and flawed administration of new, untried assessments.” If necessary, give the schools an “Incomplete” while changes are made. Most important, heed the call for an extensive review of the accountability system.

It’s up to Commissioner Stewart and her supporters and allies in Tallahassee — Gov. Scott, are you even aware of what’s going on? — to take this seriously. They must not shrug it off with “we know what we’re doing” rhetoric.

Their assessment system has lost all credibility with the public and cannot succeed unless its glaring flaws are corrected. Without changes, it’s only going to get worse.