Despite concerns raised by educators and students, the Florida Board of Education on Wednesday adopted a new set of scores teens can use to replace their Algebra I and language arts high school graduation requirements.
The board also changed the tests available to use as alternates to the state exams. Staff had recommended eliminating the use of the PERT exam, which experts said did not align with state graduation standards.
Board members said they did not like the idea of "squeezing opportunities," especially low-cost ones that many "fragile" groups use to earn a diploma. Some districts projected massive declines in their graduation rates, particularly among minority students, if the rule would be adopted as written.
Board member Michael Olenick shared that view. He said he worried about the "significant disproportionate graduation rates moving forward" if the alternative tests were changed, especially the elimination of PERT.
He and others liked the idea presented by Seminole County schools assessment director Kelly Thompson of allowing students to use a PSAT math score as another option. The state offers that test once free to all sophomores, and Seminole County provides it free to every student in eighth, ninth and eleventh grades as well.
Board member Joe York agreed with the idea of providing as many accessible opportunities to get to graduation as possible. At the same time, he and others said, they did not intend to set up a separate, lesser standard.
"There has to be one standard for everyone. That's how I read the law," board member Ben Gibson said.
He noted that the State Board adopted new tests in 2016, and was required by law to adopt concordant scores for alternate exams. Those scores are to reflect meeting the same achievement level as on state tests, deputy commissioner Juan Copa said, and not to create a loophole.
An outside testing expert set the score levels, and recommended against using the PERT, Copa noted. The information was being presented to the board Wednesday, nearly a year after it was initially expected to act on the measure.
As the result of some public feedback, the board agreed not to have the new testing rule apply to any students currently in high school. It would take effect with those entering in 2018-19 and beyond.
Speakers urged the board not to make the changes.
"I want to put into context how it is actually going to impact students. That's really really important to realize," said Michael Akes, chief academic officer for Polk County schools.
"You've raised the bar, particularly on the SAT, so much higher than is necessary for a high school graduate," suggested Cathy Boehm of the Florida Education Association.
But that was not the discussion the board would ultimately have, member Tom Grady said.
The tests were changed, the cut scores were adopted, he said. "That decision is made."
The only thing happening now is setting the concordant scores, as required, Grady said. He suggested that the board need not keep scores lower, to keep its graduation rates strong.
If students cannot pass the tests, he said, they and their teachers should work together to pick up the materials so they can pass.
"I don't think there is a kid here … who can't learn," Grady said.
That doesn't mean the discussion is over, though. At the end of the meeting, board member Gary Chartrand said there needs to be more conversation about how to ensure as many Floridians can find success as possible
"I do think we should look at alternative pathways to graduation, not that we would lower the standards," Chartrand said.
Others concurred, although Grady again stressed the need to focus on learning and skills rather than credentials.