Still another bite at Florida “runs screaming” from tests

Since my posting on Florida’s reaction to a sudden drop in writing test scores got a lot of “hits”, in blog terminology, I wanted to share a recent article on the same topic from the New York Times.

The story begins with a sympathetic, and to my mind plausible, account of an Orlando area school superintendent who has tried hard to raise test scores and improve student  performance.

The extensive test preparation has paid off. In 2011, among the state’s 67 districts, Seminole (which serves 64,000 students, half of whom qualify for federally subsidized lunches) ranked third in math, fourth in reading and sixth in writing.

Then, last month, the state dropped a bomb. The 2012 scores on the writing test — given to 4th, 8th and 10th graders — plummeted in all districts. Only 27 percent of Florida’s fourth graders were rated proficient, compared with 81 percent the year before. In Seminole, 30 percent were proficient, down from 83 percent.

As the article reports,

Something snapped in Dr. Vogel. “We’ve all worked so hard to make sure the state testing system is credible and meaningful, but we’ve reached the tipping point,” he said. “The whole system needs to be readdressed.”

But then the next paragraph talks about the apparent reason why test scores dropped:

The numbers fell so drastically because, as announced last summer, state officials toughened the standards, paying more attention to grammar and spelling as well as to the factual accuracy of supporting details in essays.

But they did not change the scoring system, resulting in a public relations disaster.

I find it hard to know exactly what to make of all this. Did the Orlando schools focus narrowly on the skills that the earlier test would cover – and neglect spelling, grammar AND factual support for arguments? I’ve taught writing for years, and this strikes me as rather worrisome neglect. So maybe this really is a cautionary tale about the dangers of teaching to the test.

It also casts a discouraging light on how states will respond to higher standards, assuming that the common core really does usher in higher standards.

Again, from the article:

So on May 15, Florida’s education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, held an emergency conference call with State Education Board members, while 800 school administrators from all over Florida listened in. The board voted to lower the cutoff to 3.

Presto! Problem solved. The proficiency rate for fourth graders was now exactly what it had been in the 2010-11 school year, 81 percent.

For 10th graders, the results actually improved, to 84 percent from 80 percent, meaning scores plummeted but proficiency increased.

For those like Dr. Vogel who think proficiency should reflect the mastery of a specific set of skills rather than the score that pops up after state officials wiggle things around, this was distressing. “Making an arbitrary change without finding out what happened could result in people losing confidence in accountability,” he said.

Though this may be the worst breakdown in 15 years of state testing, it does not appear that Florida politicians have any interest in figuring out who was responsible. The commissioner? Department officials? Someone at Pearson, the company that scored the writing tests?

I’ve said it before: This is the scenario that scares me about the common core and accompanying assessments. Suppose we invest heavily in teacher training and new educational materials, but it takes some time for test scores to reflect pedagogical changes. Trust me, in education everything takes time. If the test scores fall, as they almost certainly will, are state officials going to abandon the tests? Lower the standards? Blame  teachers, test writers, kids, parents?

Stay tuned.


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