ST. PETERSBURG — A year stuffed with tutoring sessions, reading intervention and teacher training culminated in stagnant FCAT scores in Pinellas County and much of the state, leaving education officials to question how the new education standards and a new exam next school year will affect their students.
School board members from across the state gathered in Tampa from Wednesday through Friday for the annual Florida School Board Association summer conference, a reunion Pinellas officials saw as an opportunity to rally troops in their quest to find solutions for the transition to the Florida Standards curriculum and test created by the American Institutes for Research.
Several summers of training sessions have led to the standards switch, but the question is how to measure accountability in schools because the FCAT tests no longer apply, and how to teach students in the classroom when testing takes up a large chunk of their school year.
“We are testing beyond reason,” Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner said. “It’s awful. It’s outrageous, but unfortunately the train is already on the track for a new test. I wish we could do something, but I’m not sure what.”
In 1999, Florida became the first state to launch an A through F school grading system to make schools accountable by tracking students’ performance on standardized tests. However, this month Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that suspends the school grading system’s high-stakes consequences for the 2014-15, as classrooms adjust to the new tests and standards.
Students next year will take the new Florida Standards Assessment, the FCAT science sections and end-of-course exams from March through May. Schools will be assigned a letter grade based on test scores and other performance measures, such as learning gains. But those with D and F grades won’t be subject automatically to “turnaround” plans that replace school faculty or convert them to a charter school. Struggling schools still will receive extra support from the state Department of Education.
For now, Pinellas Superintendent Michael Grego decided to go forward with turnaround options for next school year, replacing principals at three low-performing schools before FCAT scores even were tallied, and continuing to monitor last year’s five turnaround schools. The schools’ results on the school district’s own tests indicated the need for changes, Grego said.
Officials also are looking to decrease the number of district tests required so students and teachers can focus on the state-mandated exams and spend more time on classroom lessons, Grego said.
Last summer, Pinellas spent about $3.1 million on Summer Bridge, a sweeping summer school program for about 6,600 struggling students. This summer, about 12,000 students have enrolled.
The Juvenile Welfare Board paid about $650,000 to launch “Promise Time” daily tutoring sessions in 28 high-poverty schools, with about 2,300 students practicing reading and other skills on a daily basis outside of the classroom.
Also, thousands of students participated in new self-directed reading courses during the summer, and Pinellas public libraries began offering “Prime Time” reading programs for students and their parents to practice comprehension skills. The state even increased the school day by one hour in the 100 lowest-performing schools, seven of which were in Pinellas County.
School district information shows the extra work paid off, with students making significant gains. However, FCAT scores statewide were relatively flat across the board, especially in third-grade reading and writing.
In all, more than half — 57 percent in reading and 58 percent in math — of third-graders statewide scored a passing grade this year. Only 49 percent of Pinellas students passed their math tests. In Hillsborough County the number was 56 percent. In Pasco, 50 percent passed.
“I think we need to take a serious look at what we’re doing and how we’re assessing student reading. It’s been fairly flat for the last five to seven years,” Grego said. “We are seeing so many positive things happen in our school district, it is my hope that our future appraisal system will provide the evidence that that hard work is paying off and measures that hard work on an annual basis.”
The new test for the Florida Standards Assessment will be used only in Florida and Utah. Originally, Florida was going to join 15 states offering another test created to fit the Common Core education standards adopted in 45 states and Washington, D.C. That test was field-tested by 1 million students across the country on June 6 after a nine-week trial run.
The American Institute for Research exams tailored to the slightly different Florida Standards curriculum are being field-tested only in Utah.
“I’m very, very concerned about the time line of what is coming next for Florida,” Pinellas School Board member Terry Krassner said. “I’m hoping we can continue to fight this, especially in light of how much emphasis is placed on the test for our students and teachers both, regarding evaluations, graduation, everything, it’s too important of an item to let the DOE continue in this vein.”
A standardized test that could be compared directly with other states was the original appeal of the new Common Core Standards, Grego said. Without that comparison, school districts are left on their own to find meaning behind the assessments.
Additionally, the state lacks the computers necessary to switch to the all-digital format that is required, Grego said. With Florida Standards, many lessons are completed online, and the exam is computer-based. The Department of Education’s readiness gauge shows Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties are among the districts struggling to meet those standards.
“I’m still concerned about whether we’re testing the ability to take a test on a computer or if were assessing the content which that student knows. And I do not believe to this day that our English Language Learning students and others have a fair and equal testing platform,” Grego said. “If you provide an assessment, you don’t want to make the tool an issue in determining whether you understand the material or not.”
Florida isn’t the only state struggling to make the testing and accountability transition. Colorado, Ohio and New Jersey are among those delaying Common Core-aligned tests or simply going a year without consequences for poor scores.
“It’s all the same variables. All districts, not only in the state of Florida, are facing these things as the education system moves,” Grego said. “We will continue to, as a School Board Association, push for later and fewer types of assessments.”