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School Chancellor, in Flagler, Touts Higher FCAT Standards as State Board Drops Them

| May 15, 2012

Florida Public Schools Chancellor Pam Stewart defended the FCAT under tough questioning--and doubt--in a discussion with Flagler County educators and the local school board Tuesday afternoon. (c FlaglerLive)

The contradiction was sharper than cheddar. It starred Florida Public Schools Chancellor Pam Stewart, who made a 75-minute appearance before the Flagler County School Board, teachers and others Tuesday afternoon. And it illustrated the vast gulf between the state Department of Education and the realities school districts and their teachers are contending with on the ground.

Hours earlier, the Florida Board of Education had dropped the passing grade on FCAT testing from 4 to 3, after results on this spring’s tests showed a calamitous drop in scores for students across the state. The severity of the drop raised questions about the way the test was scored and again put the test’s credibility as a “standard” measure in question, as it has repeatedly been in the past several years.

At 4 p.m., in a roundtable discussion scheduled long before the FCAT debacle, Stewart unreservedly described the FCAT as a “credible” test and a reliable measure of student achievement and celebrated a continuing rise in Florida school standards even as she described the new FCAT scoring method as a more accurate reflection of students’ abilities. The discordance was somewhere in the range of John McCain describing the economy as “sound” as the nation’s financial system was collapsing.

Stewart then spoke of a new generation of standardized tests that would bring the state in line with national standards over the next few years—news to many in the audience, and another

Board member Andy Dance didn’t buy the chancellor’s view of FCAT. “What I see as a problem is really the credibility that goes back to the test because we’re basing school grades, we’re basing teacher evaluation, and it seems like DOE [the Department of Education] can’t even get the grading of the test correct,” Dance said.

“I would suggest to you that I think the credibility is there. I think that over time we’ve gotten to the credibility. FCAT is seen as being a very valid and reliable assessment,” Stewart said. She then assured Dance and an audience of about 40, including teachers, that evaluations are not based on passing grades, but on student progress, a nuance lost on most teachers’ anxieties.

One of those teachers, Katie Hansen—president of the Flagler County Educators Association, the teachers union, was in the audience with a group of colleagues.
“In light of these writing scores that have been released,” Hansen asked Stewart, “to me they have emphasized yet again the potential harmful effects of the high-stakes testing. When will the educational leadership of our state really, truly look for a measure of progress that is fair to our students?”

“I just would have to respectfully disagree,” Stewart answered. “I think that FCAT over time has proven to be a fair measure. I think that if you look at what the scores are for writing, though it is a drop, if you look at what the expectation was for a 3, what the expectation was for a 4, there kind of isn’t an expectation for 3.5 because you know that’s kind of by default. It really is a fair and true measure of what a 3 writing would be. II think what we haven’t established in Florida in grade 4 and grade 8 and grade 10—what is on grade level? Is that a 3? Is it a 3.5? Is it a 4? I would assume somewhere in there.”

Oddly, the state has for years established that 3rd graders who didn’t have at least a passing grade of 3 on the reading test didn’t move on to the 4th grade, and that 10th graders who didn’t clear the same threshold didn’t graduate, thus declaring who was and who wasn’t on grade level.
Hansen pressed on, asking Stewart whether the new scoring method had been properly described to teachers so they could better prepare their students.

“That’s a very good question. Thank you for asking it,” Stewart said. But her answer took tangents that would have cost her numerous FCAT points if she was being scored on staying on topic. And her answer was more veiled than clear. She spoke of a letter that went out to superintendents on July 5, the day after a holiday, that included a web link that took readers to “the calibration sets,” which Stewart explained as “what teachers generally use in order to determine what is a 3 that we would write to.” But not necessarily the difference between a 3 and a 4. “If there was something that some area that we kind of missed the mark with, with regard to that,” Stewart continued, “I would say that it was in how you approach that.”

Then came Evie Shellenberger’s turn. The former Flagler County school board member hadn’t wanted to miss Stewart appearance, or the chance to ask her directly the sort of questions she’d posed rhetorically from her board seat for years.

“We’ve talked about a lot of different tests today, and there are a lot of other tests in the schools,” Shellenberger said, “to the point that our teachers spend more time testing the students than they have an opportunity to teach them, so how can we get a better end result if we don’t have the time to spend with the students, particularly those that struggle, that have been struggling since elementary and all the way through, and without figuring out a way to go with a longer school day or a longer school year or something because there is not enough time in the school day for these people to accomplish what they’re being asked to accomplish without killing themselves.”

“I don’t think I have an answer to that,” Stewart said. It wasn’t clear if she meant to be ironic when she continued: “I think there is more state or district driven assessment now than when I taught.” (She’d been an elementary school teacher, a guidance counselor, a principal and a deputy superintendent in St. Johns County before her move to the Department of Education.) Her suggestion: teachers could choose to use the state tests and “give up on some other assessment that I may have.”

When Shellenberger–who’s now a substitute teacher–described how, with FCAT dominating the curriculum, students think school is essentially done after testing, Stewart said that may be the case only with a small segment of students. The teachers in back of the room groaned in chorus, underscoring the divide between the state’s perceptions and local realities.

John Fischer, the school board member, recognized Stewart for putting in travel time in various counties. But he was skeptical. “Every time that we talk to somebody, a senator or whichever, it’s very nice to get the offer as far as the questions,” he said, “but then once you’re out the door, nothing is ever done. I’m not saying you, but I’m saying this is history.” Fischer asked Stewart “what will be done or accomplished to help these frustrated teachers and parents and the children?”

Stewart said she and her assistant had “captured the questions, the comments, the themes,” and would follow up, while finding out what information the Department of Education needs to be putting out more clearly. She had alluded early in her presentation to the department’s hiring of a firm to improve its communications—essentially, a PR effort. Stewart’s visit had amounted to little else.

The Department of Education meanwhile took some responsibility for the drop in FCAT scores, saying it did not adequately prepare schools and teachers for more rigorous standards that were put in place this year, which included an increased focus on grammar and punctuation. Instead the new standard appears to have been rushed, which led to the dramatic increase in unsatisfactory scores.

School-specific writing scores will not be out until at least the end of the week, leaving many districts in limbo as they wait to see if their schools will garner the necessary scores to keep the overall school grade from dropping, which has financial implications for already cash-strapped districts.

Even with the lower standards, more students this year will not receive a satisfactory score, a drop in success that state education officials say is prompted by tougher testing criteria and the fact that each test was scored by two people. At the 3.0 threshold, 81 percent of fourth graders, 77 percent of eighth graders and 84 percent of 10th graders passed the test. Despite the lower standard, some districts will still be adversely affected. School grades are partially determined by FCAT scores. Schools that perform poorly must divert resources to fixing the problem, which takes funds away from other areas.

Some state board members reluctantly supported the lower standards, but made it clear they would not continue to do so. School scores are expected to be out by the end of the week.

“The change from 4.0 to 3.0 looks like we are lowering standards,” said John Padget. “I’m only voting on this so we can hold (schools) harmless for this year only:”

The low scores brought concern from the top as well. Gov. Rick Scott, in a sharply worded statement Monday, said the lower scores were of great concern.

“The significant contrast in this year’s writing scores is an obvious indication that the Department of Education needs to review the issue and recommend an action plan so that our schools, parents, teachers and students have a clear understanding of the results,” Scott said.

Stewart’s round-table in Flagler was followed by a school board workshop then a school board meeting, which didn’t end until 8:30 p.m. Shellenberger waited until the end for the public comment period, when she told the board of Stewart’s earlier appearance: “I was a little disappointed, because I didn’t agree with too much of what the chancellor said. I guess I did have it verified that there’s nobody up there fighting for us, for you all, for these folks, and that’s really sad. Really sad.”

–The News Service of Florida contributed reporting from Tallahassee.

8 Responses for “School Chancellor, in Flagler, Touts Higher FCAT Standards as State Board Drops Them”

  1. Tired HS Teacher says:

    This woman talked in circles just like all the other fat-cats who spoke during the “emergency meeting” earlier today. None of them could answer a question directly. One parent who phoned in during the emergency DOE meeting that began at 10:30 this morning asked specifically, “How long do graders spend reading each essay? Are they paid based on how fast they read? What special training do they receive?” The parent got no answer to her question on how long it takes to grade each essay (I can tell you each reader spends only 1-2 minutes on each essay, and if they aren’t scoring quickly enough they can be let go!), also, the scorers do have bachelor’s degrees, but it can be in ANY areas, be it mortuary science or decorative floral arranging. An expose a few year’s back by the Miami Herald found one scorer had a bachelor’s degree from a foreign university and no one had translated the degree to even see what it was in!!! One was an unemployed guy who’d just lost his job as a popcorn maker at a local movie theatre. I can’t make this up people!!!

    Regardless, teachers who assess or teach writing are constantly undergoing training, and reading student writing on a daily basis (at least the good ones are, and there are a few of us good ones left out there!!). These scorers do this ONCE A YEAR for a little extra pocket money. I’ve seen the full-page ads in the Jacksvonille Times Union (“We need people to score children’s tests.”) They run them every January and February. Once I was shopping in the Dollar Tree and I heard these “temp” jobs being announced as part of an advertisement for “Kelly Temps.” Same deal. “We are looking for people to score children’s essays!” Hey, great job for the snowbirds…

    Pearson has a scoring facility in the south end of Jacksonville toward St. Augustine, not far off the JTB…. been there myself a few times…. That’s where they work in this area.

    Plus they are HIRED CONTRACTORS. They do not have children’s vested interests in mind. They don’t care whether the kids pass or fail. It means nothing to them! And this lady who visited our district … what a crock of nonsense. Does she actually BELIEVE her own blather? I certainly don’t.

    Perhaps if these people spent some actual time in the classroom they would see what is going on. Mystudents have spent more time out of the classroom this month taking Algebra EOC, Geometry EOC, Biology EOC that all I’m doing now is trying to play catch up for all the classwork they’ve missed. Every single day, five or more kids are taken out of my class while they are locked in some computer lab for 2-3 hours at a time, taking some standardized, computerized test. Then they fall behind in all their other classes. Education in this state is a massive train wreck that’s ALREADY happened, not that is waiting to happen….

    I will teach whatever they want me to teach but for God’s sake JUST LET ME TEACH!!!! The tests they give these kids don’t provide me with any additional information about my students that I haven’t figured out in the first week or two I spend with the students. Give me time to work with the kids, and I can help fix the gaps and get them where they need to be, but if they’re always taking them out of the class to test them, we’re going nowhere fast…

    • Liana G says:

      I understand your frustration, but do you know that these said scorers can also become teachers with these said degrees? A teacher does not have to have an ‘education degree’ to teach. Therefore, if they are good enough to teach, then that should make them good enough to grade a few papers. Maybe the ‘unemployed guy who just lost his job as a pop corn maker’ does have a college degree. Maybe the individual with the foreign degree speaks and writes proper English better than native English speakers. A well-established British newspaper found this to be true of Indians from India.

      And can we really say that these contractors do not have the students’ best interest at heart? Given the fact that they have no personal stakes in the outcomes, I am inclined to believe that they would feel greater obligation in exercising the required professional ethics. I bet these folks would have done just as fine a job as my child did with the school newsletter we recently received. I asked her to spot the errors; I wish I could say the yellow highlighter got carried away. Last semester, my college professor was visibly cringing while reading a local school’s ‘welcome letter’. It was a letter I printed off their website to take in for a class project. Funny thing is, I had spoken to the school numerous times in the past (when my kids attended) about how this was reflecting embarrassingly on the school, but no corrections were ever made. Schools do have an English department and the luxury of time to do these things right. If rankings are tied to academics then we do need to lose a few!

  2. Binkey says:

    I think the governor should say what is needed is a clear understanding of the expectations. Whatever silly hoops the legislature or FLDOE decides students must jump through to “prove” we have a great education system, the teachers get them there once they know the expectations.

    I’m not exactly sure how changing the cut score provides support that this test is valid and reliable. It sounds to me that the FLDOE pulls these numbers and the scoring out of its ass. These scores didn’t make FLDOE look good so it made another expedition up its ass to get new cut scores. Now they can say all is well.

    What were the prompts this year? Anyone know?

  3. Bethechange says:

    Hate to complicate matters even further for ms. Stewart…BUT today i was told that i could access the verification roster (read only), used to cakculate my VAM score, which is clearly incorrect as it reflects i had 54 students last year ( i did not), and was unable to log in. As my evaluation and subsequently my cost of living salary increase is directly tied to the results of the students I taught, it just seemed like a good idea to check its accuracy. No go. Furthermore, it is my understanding that at present, there is no system in place, at the state level, where the scores are ultimately calculated, to correct any errors, as they lack the manpower to do so. The landing at normandy as portrayed in Saving Private Ryan comes to mind, as does the characters’ favorite acronym.

  4. bulldog 7 says:

    50 years ago, high schools turned out doctors, lawyers, rocket scientists, teachers, and the list goes on. 25 years ago, high schools turned out doctors, lawyers, rocket scientists, teachers, and the list goes on. What was wrong with those standardized graduation tests?

  5. Nancy N. says:

    Stewart’s shoveling so much crap that I have a BA in Communications and I can’t even figure out half the time what it is she’s actually trying to say!

  6. Gia says:

    Don’t blame FCAT, it’s easy to find excuses. No more tax $$$ in the system, it does not work. Kids today are more ignorant & dumb than before, they wont learn & no discipline no where. They handle their pencil like an ice pic. They can’t follow a normal conversation. Even at WalMart they don’t do that good. Simple mathematics, remove the calculator batteries & they are lost. Text messaging, drug & sex they …excel !!!. Now you wonder why companies send their work oversees !!!!

  7. palmcoaster says:

    @Gia. Please do not look for excuses to support outsourcing “a la Bain Capital”, as is just an insult to our intelligence… We pay taxes for our kids to go to school and learn and we need to labor on that and achieve to receive the services we pay for., I know is not fun as will take away from your other more enjoyable social activities, but comes with the territory. What about this approach instead. Get involved with your kids homework, after school extra curriculum work and get involved with the teachers and the school and go to those school board meetings and demand accountability! School is like any other business, if you are not present to take care and monitor it, you get doomed along your kids. This chancellor came to Flagler schools to tell you all, how they like it better for special interest and not for the betterment of the students.They don’t care about middle and lower class students. The contracts for the consultants they benefit with these test paid with our taxes, is their only goal…just what transpired to me.
    Brought back the memories when in the 70’s we put up a fight in some NJ out in Sussex county schools against stopping plans to renovate the school administrators offices to an all lavish new decor and increase the budget benefiting the football and baseball field trips while hacking the arts, specially music crowded classes and one foreign language elective class, to pay for that!! We opposed it, on the meetings with TV and newspapers coverage and…we won! Wasn’t easy and took time and effort victory. Arts, music and one foreign language elective, courses were saved as well as those teachers jobs. The administrators had to content with waiting for the renovations and the football and baseball teams gather their funds for field trips with bakes sales, festivals and other fundraising’s that we all contributed to. Back then we really battle for the right cause.

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