Carvalho: Common sense on student testing

Florida, like many states, is facing an education-reform debate that some say is driven too much by think-tank ideology instead of common sense and research-based findings. The repercussions are putting the validity and reliability of the state’s accountability system in jeopardy.

Assessment, as an accountability tool, exists only to inform and improve teaching and learning. Its use beyond that lends itself to misinterpretation of results, erroneous conclusions, perversion of the system itself and potential harm to students, teachers, schools and communities.

Rapid changes to the accountability system, with no consideration for the impact of multiple adjustments, have left the public confused about students’ true performance. Meanwhile, educators are concerned, doubtful and skeptical about both policy and its quick roll-out. The recent disconnect between sinking school-grade performance and improved student outcomes has only added to the confusion and heartbreak.

On the eve of the most dramatic shift since the inception of the FCAT or the transition to FCAT 2.0, in terms of assessment, we ought to pause. We should take time to honestly reassess previous and recent decisions and their consequences. We must have the courage to proceed on a path that is student- and teacher-centric, a path that excludes politics, influence, ignorance and extremism.

We cannot go back to the days when majority performance cloaked entire pockets of under-performing students, even in higher performing schools. We have a moral responsibility to respectfully and reasonably assess students to ensure their cognitive development. We cannot develop strategic and differentiated solutions without understanding the cruel reality of achievement gaps that result from poverty in our community.

We cannot allow the silence of a common-sense majority to be hijacked by disconnected, misinformed or politically influenced voices of dissent. Nor can we expect that someone other than those who care for and understand the true democratic value of public education will step up to provide needed fixes. A prudent course of action relies on following a number of reasonable and sequential steps:

• We must reassess inflexible and flawed federal educational policy that negatively affects our fragile student populations of English-language learners and children with disabilities. We must re-examine Florida’s celebrated, and recently maligned, No Child Left Behind waiver that many see as having exchanged unreasonable federal policy for arbitrary state rules.

• Statutory timelines for accountability implementation must be adjusted and aligned not with arbitrary assessment mandates, but with the readiness and awareness level of standards with educators, parents and communities. In light of what is being decried as a rush to roll out new assessments to comply with statutorily mandated accountability timelines, an additional year of standards implementation should be granted. This will enable sufficient community awareness and understanding as well as optimal statewide professional development of teachers and leaders.

• Third, the state must ensure that as it constructs a new assessment, the private entity contracted to develop it has the experience in educational assessment to do so. The state must also demand that field-testing the exam be performed in Florida with Florida students — not Utah, where field testing has been conducted.

The state must own and address over-assessment. Instructional time is too precious to spend it assessing students on duplicative measures. Assessment of students should serve the strict purpose of informing instruction, not simply provide a variable into a teacher’s performance evaluation formula, as is the case of the new state-mandated, district-designed end-of-course K-12 exams.

• Fourth, the state must abandon its plan to use baseline assessment data to generate school grades. Accountability in Florida relies on an analysis of both performance as well as improvement over time, otherwise known as learning gains.

Measuring performance over time demands comparable data preceding the year in question. That will be impossible in 2014-2015 because there will be no previous year’s data available for comparison purposes. One alternative could be an objective report card that informs communities of educational indicators without assigning unreliable school letter grades.

• Fifth, tying inconclusive and statistically unreliable achievement data to teacher evaluation and performance pay scales based on learning gains or Value-Added Models, when those very same gains that are indispensable to the model are nonexistent, is questionable at best and unethical at worst.

There is a high moral imperative at play that, if not addressed, will define not only who we are, but also what we value, how we tackle challenges when we know better and how we value our children and those who teach them. And as we, the adults, consider, debate, argue and, unfortunately, sometimes disrespect each other in this process, we should not ignore the fact that our children are watching us and shouldn’t be confused by our confusing ways.

Alberto Carvalho is superintendent of the Miami-Dade Public School District.