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Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Falicy of Florida's school grading system

From Scathing Purple Musings

by Bob Sykes

Julie G. Delegal is a self-described PTA mom – turned freelance-journalist living in Jacksonville, Florida. Like countless others, Julie has been closely following the state’s education reform efforts. She dismantles the dysfunctional and corrupt apparatus here:

Thousands of citizens, myself included, got nauseous this morning over the “news.” After many trials and tribulations and all out begging in Tallahassee, we recently got a year’s reprieve to “turnaround” our four “failing” schools–only to wake up to today’s front page news: “3 more intervene schools in Jax.” Really? Only if you accept the rules of the game.

I find it hard to believe that the otherwise sharp people on the school board are taking this news lying down. They need to question the parameters of this game before acknowledging loss, before the powers that be in Tallahassee finish destroying public education as we know it.

The FCAT has been an exercise in moving goalposts since it began. This year, FCAT 2.0 did not even measure actual gains, student to student. Pearson, in effect, arguably perpetrated an unfinished product on Florida’s students, using our public school population as guinea pigs.

The FCAT is a criterion-referenced test, i.e., it uses “standards” for grade levels. But this year’s test was new, apparently invalidated, unfinished, untested, unreliable. How to tell whether kids passed or failed the new test? They tied this year’s new test scores to percentile rankings (i.e., a norm-referenced scheme) using last year’s different test.

So they took their scores, put them on a bell-curve-like distribution, and matched them up with last year’s distribution for a different test. Now, instead of simply having to make gains to get off a “failing” list, or to “improve,” students also have to do better than peers all over the state in order to advance to the next “level” percentile-wise. It doesn’t smell kosher, and it’s probably not empirically sound, but no one’s been reporting on this, so we get what we deserve.

Conflating criterion-referenced tests with a norm-reference scheme is bad enough. We have failed to question the validity of FCAT for ten years, and we’ve watched as the Florida Legislature has done away with other valid instruments, like the Stanford 10 (NRT) which simply doesn’t correlate in any way with FCAT. NRTs and CRTs aren’t supposed to correlate, but when the median NRT score is the 87th percentile among 10th graders who barely pass the FCAT reading portion, something is wrong.

And when we do away with the Stanford-FCAT package (McGraw testing company) in order to hire Jeb Bush’s little friend’s company (Pearson exec William Pifferer) something is also wrong. I used to laugh at the conspiracy theorists who thought the right was trying to destroy public education. I’m not laughing any more.

First right-wing business interests disguised as “reformers” took poverty out of the equation, accusing those who would deign to talk about poor kids’ experience gaps of practicing “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Then they developed a grading scheme that would play to their ideological base: middle class schools would do okay, while poorer schools would fail. But remember, in their narrative, we can’t talk about socio-economic status or specific strategies to fill gaps; instead, the talk turned to poor children as “victims” and “bad” teachers as villains. How do we know the teachers are “bad”? Why, the test scores, of course. Enter the promise of “Superman.” They peddle vouchers to poor children for private schools that do no better than our poorest public schools, and then they get rid of any apples-to-apples means of comparing the two, i.e., the NRT. They baldly, proudly de-fund public schools in the name of choice, funneling dollars away from public institutions and hampering their ability to continue full -scale operations. They hold districts hostage, forcing them to take any remaining enrichment out of the curriculum, and then act surprised when the kids perform poorly. They pour money into charters, which, as it turns out, produce results as mixed as those for public schools. Often, those results are tied to the socio-economic status of students. Yes, poor students need to be held to the same expectations, deserve a high quality education. But taking poverty out of the conversation has not worked; it has only served to advance a business-political agenda at the expense of our kids.

It’s way past time to demand a more reasonable approach to public education in Florida, including reasonable approaches to measuring student progress and teacher effectiveness. This idea that we can pull every single child above the mean is ridiculous–mathematically speaking, it’s downright impossible. But we can raise the mean. We have to start, though, with reasonable measures. Strike that–we have to start with reasonable people in elected office. Keep your eyes on the redistricting process. You won’t believe what they’re up to on that front

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