by Marilyn Wills
This must have been a highly anticipated Hot Topics event in Tallahassee. On one side was Patricia Levesque, the Executive Director for his foundation, Foundation for Excellence, founded by Jeb Bush. On the other side was Rosanne Wood, former principal of one of the nation’s top 6 innovative high schools. Ms. Levesque touts Florida’s education gains. Ms. Wood wonders about shifting denominators in statistics and the impact of testing on students and teachers.
Why we should test and why we should reconsider how tests are used was the focus of the meeting. There was some agreement, but the perspectives on testing were very different. These are the talking points. We need to know them inside and out. Read the report from the Leon County League. League of Women Voters of Tallahassee Hot Topics January 27, 2015 Our guest speakers were Patricia Levesque, Executive Director of the of the Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, non-profit public policy organizations founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and Rosanne Wood, who is recognized as one of Florida’s pioneer educational innovators. After graduating from FSU with a Master’s Degree in Social Studies Education, she served as a teacher and then principal of SAIL (School for Arts and Innovative Learning) High School in Tallahassee, Florida for 36 years. Wood served as President of the Leon County Principals’ Association in 1988 and 1995 and as the State President of the Florida Association of Alternative School Educators in 1989-91.
According to Ms Levesque, the evolution of high-stakes testing began in 1971 when Governor Askew instituted the Florida Statewide Assessment Program. That was followed by Governor Graham who initiated the high school exit examination. In 1992-1998, during the Chiles administration, the Florida Sunshine State Standards and FCAT were created; the test data was used for school accountability. In 1999, Governor Bush expanded
methods of measuring growth in school accountability, with multiple paths to 4th grade promotion, and in 2010, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan instituted the “Race to the Top” where student data is now used in teacher evaluation.
Ms Levesque agrees that there is “too much” testing going on and is in favor of fewer, better tests. She stated that there are anywhere from 8 to 200 extra tests given districtwide, and results are not getting back to teachers in a timely fashion; this does not help teachers in determining where more work is needed. She is in favor of eliminating duplicative tests and for high schools moving to more widely accepted assessments like the PSAT and ACT. Also, those teaching in state-assessed areas should be evaluated first.
In 2009, the Foundation for Florida’s Future (FFF) recommended that teachers be eligible for tenure after five years of teaching, rather than three. The legislature did not pass this. In 2010, the FFF recommended that tenure be decided based on 1/3 of student data, 1/3 on principal observation, and 1/3 on peer review. Again, they were unsuccessful, and in 2011 FFF proposed that evaluations be based on student data in those areas that are state tested. Instead, the Senate proposed legislation where 50% of teachers’ evaluations be based on student data regardless of the grade taught.
Ms Levesque supports annual testing for the following reasons:
- Keep the promise of equity—all children get high quality education.
- Identify struggling students and schools; make sure that they receive help and resources needed for success.
- Provide parents with honest, objective information on how their child is doing.
The speaker also provided some statistics that indicated that Florida was doing much better than the national average in some areas. These are available in the power point she presented and are to be available to the Tallahassee League; the power point will be forwarded to this site as soon as it becomes available.
Roseanne Wood, of course, has a different outlook on schools, teaching, and education in general. She was the principal of Leon County’s very successful alternative high school (SAIL) from its early days. Ms Wood stated that she differed with Ms Levesque on “what we want our schools to look like,” although she does support the idea of using the SAT and ACT instead of other state developed tests. According to Ms Wood, numbers and data do not tell us if the child is well-rounded or knows how to work cooperatively. Also, if a student is not good at “taking tests” and is told so at an early age, he/she will not feel good about him/herself.
She quoted Mark Twain, who said “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” Earlier, graphs were shown that indicated that Florida’s average graduation rate is at 70%. Ms Wood stated that not counting those who leave the schools for various reasons would make the numbers look better; you might be counting 70 students of out 93 instead of 100, increasing the % to 70. In other words, you can manipulate the data to get better looking results. Ms Wood’s philosophy is, “Give me your lowest kids and we will help them.”
She is not convinced that the graduation rate has actually improved but hopes that it has. She stated that in the last three years, while the DOE has followed 9th graders, they eliminated those who moved, died, went to private schools, or are home schooled; there is no follow up on the 69,000 students on vouchers (the majority are in religious schools); if 22% of the beginning 9th graders are taken out of the number followed (denominator), that might account for the improved graduation rate. Florida has dropped from 10th to 28th in the Quality Counts Reports because of a change in the criteria used. We are 41/50 in spending, 12th in the nation in 4th grade reading, and 43/50 in graduation rates. Not included in the 4th grade statistic is the fact that 7% of 15,628 3rd graders were retained; they did not appear in the 4th grade reading statistics.
Ms Wood stated that there is much stress caused by the emphasis on test scores and noted that there is an opt-out movement going on; she also called attention to the fact that Diane Ravitch is now questioning the policies she helped institute during the Bush administration. She thinks we are headed for an “iceberg.” Because of high stakes testing, school grades, the common core standards, and the teacher pay issue. From last year to this, there has been an increase of 30 designated testing days—124 to 154 days, an increase in the number of subjects tested, more time given to testing sessions, an increased number of grade levels tested, and in the number of days testing takes place.
Teachers are losing valuable teacher time because of the testing. In the high schools, April and May are lost to testing days. Tests are given on computers; if there are not enough computers in the schools, the children test in shifts. Teachers are left with half or one-third of students; unable to proceed with material. Students in the computer classes lose their class time since the computers are being used for testing. Districts may be giving too many tests, but they are practicing for the real ones; the pressure on school districts is enormous. Not taken into consideration is the fact that everybody is different, and everyone learns differently. Standardized tests don’t account for this. Ms Wood also feels that testing certain subjects and not others could also lead to divisiveness on faculties.
Florida has spent $80 million on testing each year over the last four years. Ms Wood thinks that school grades lead to “Shame and Blame” and that teachers should not be evaluated based on test scores. Principals should hire, fire, evaluated and lead their teachers. Poverty should be addressed and added resources provided. Students should experience the joy of learning and be helped to thrive. She believes that the legislative mandates should be rolled back; the most important skills students need are not measured by standardized tests. You can listen to the audio version of the presentation here: (This link reports possible page problems, but I persisted, and I did get to the audio.)