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Hidden inside “Fewer, Better Tests” are Cold Showers and other Baloney

SB926/HB773 are being called “Fewer, Better Tests” bills yet they don’t reduce the current number of state assessments, nor to they make those assessments better. “Fewer, Better Tests” has been a slogan of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for several years and is often used in response to parents complaints regarding over-testing. The “Fewer, Better Tests” bills were unveiled at a press conference on 2/15/17, in which the bills’ sponsors shared the microphone with Patricia Levesque, the CEO of Jeb’s Foundation for Florida’s Future. You can read the details here.

During the press conference, Ms. Levesque suggested that a provision in the law requiring teachers to have access to local assessment results within one week of their administration might compel districts to decrease or change their local assessments. This is laughable because, for the most part, districts are compelled to use local, progress monitoring assessments because of the high stakes attached to the state assessments. Since the “Fewer, Better Tests” bill fail to address the high stakes attached to student test scores, districts will find a way to continue to assess students and the test-focused classroom will persist.

If these bills don’t call for fewer or better tests, what do they REALLY do? They move the state testing window to the end of the school year and shortens it to three weeks. They require teachers are provided with test results for their current and incoming students (something that already happens at my children’s schools) and mandate that districts provide local test results in a more timely fashion. They ask the Commissioner of Education to evaluate whether the SAT or ACT could be used to replace a few high school level state tests in the future. The components of the “Fewer, Better Tests” bills have been referred to as “much ado about nothing” (you can read more reactions to the bills here and here).

Sometimes you learn most about a bill from what is NOT mentioned. In this case, there are two GLARING omissions from the sponsors’ press conference presentations. Perhaps these are the REAL reasons for this bill.

1. ALTERING THE TESTING SCHEDULE TO CLEAR THE WAY FOR COMPETENCY BASED EDUCATION

First, this bill includes language that allows the 3-8th grade state assessments to be administered quarterly, for students identified through “competency-based education” who are “prepared” to take the assessment. (line 128 of SB926).

Competency Based Education (CBE) is a data driven education system that follows a set of prescribed standards and requires demonstration of “competency” before advancement. It has embedded testing within the curriculum that collects hidden streams of data via unknown algorithms. CBE is a primary goal of Patricia Levesque and the Bush Foundation. Sponsored, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it will make some vendors very rich. We believe Florida’s accountabaloney system is deeply entangled in this move to CBE (please read about it here). Last session, with hardly a word about what CBE entails, SB 1714 was passed establishing a Competency Based Pilot program in 5 counties in Florida. At that time, legislators rejected an amendment that would have allowed Commissioner Stewart to expand the program to other counties before they had collected any data on the CBE pilot’s effectiveness. Lake County, one of the original pilot participants, is already “considering not funding their experimental personalized-learning efforts because it is not consistently producing results.” If the CBE pilot program in Lake County is currently failing, why is the Foundation “sneaking” CBE legislation into state statute? Shouldn’t the state be taking a hard look at the CBE pilot results before further expansion? What are the implications to the school grade system, if students are allowed to take assessments when they are “prepared” rather than on the state mandated schedule? At a minimum this language should only be incorporated into the Pilot Study statutory language, otherwise is could amount to an expansion of the CBE “pilot” without direct legislative approval. We suspect the goal of this specific language in these bills, and the reason it was not mentioned at the press conference, may be to allow such expansion.

2. CHANGING THE DEFINITION OF A PASSING SCORE TO “PROFICIENT.”

Last year, the State Board of Education (FLBOE) spent months discussing and setting cut scores for the new Florida Standards Assessments. Much of the conversation revolved around the definition of the word “proficient.” (We wrote about it here.) While the public was asking for cut scores that reflected satisfactory grade level performance, there was tremendous political pressure from Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) to raise the new cut scores to match the proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The FEE launched a near constant social media campaign calling for an end to the “Honesty Gap”, they engaged the Florida Chamber and Council of 100, and they aligned with then-Vice Chair of the BOE, John Padget (who famously recommended we submit our children to a cold shower now in anticipation of the hope for a good paying job later). In the end, the FLBOE elected to consider level 3 FSA scores to be equivalent to satisfactory grade level performance and to align level 4 FSA scores with the more rigorous NAPE level of “proficiency.” These “Fewer, Better Tests” bills would alter that:

CHANGING THE DEFINITION OF A LEVEL 3 SCORE TO “PROFICIENCY” IS NOT AN INSIGNIFICANT CHANGE.

As we wrote prior to the January 2015 FLBOE cut score decision:

We want to make it clear that our students and our schools will experience more than just a cold shower with the raising of FSA cut scores to levels beyond grade level proficiency. Florida’s entire Accountabaloney system rests on these proficiency levels… students who do not pass the new third grade English Language Arts (ELA) achievement levels will face retention, high school students not achieving the new levels will be denied their diploma, many, many more students will face remediation, schools will respond with more test preparation to protect their school grade, and much more.

When the FLBOE chose, last January, to label FSA Level 3 achievement levels as “satisfactory”, they did so after months of deliberation, despite the efforts of Mr. Padget, Ms. Levesque and the reform community’s request they do otherwise. Hiding this simple word change in a bill that purports to address perceived problems with testing is abhorrent. If this language is passed, if these legislators are able to bypass the FLBOE’s cut score decision with this “hidden” proficiency language, there will be significant and lasting effects on Florida’s school children, resulting on more failures and more retentions. It is NO accident that the Florida Chamber, the Council of 100 and the Foundation for Florida’s Future joined this press conference celebrating this “Fewer, Better Tests” legislation. They have campaigned for the higher cut scores all along. We suspect they are relying on legislators to not understand the impact this change in language will have and they are doing what they can to NOT draw attention to it.

So, to be clear: SB926/HB773, the “Fewer, Better Tests” bills, WILL NOT result in fewer state tests. They WILL NOT change to any better state tests, though they will ask questions regarding using the SAT or ACT as a high school replacement test in the future. They will shrink the testing window to the last three weeks of class and perhaps provide a nicer score report to parents and teachers. There is NO evidence that they will impact the amount of district level testing.

SB926/HB773, the “Fewer, Better Tests” bills, WILL advance Competency Based Education and SIGNIFICANTLY alter failure rates of state assessments by altering the definition of the passing level 3.

Parents have not asked that the state assessments become more difficult to pass. If the sponsors of this legislation had really heard constitutents “loud and clear” (as they claimed during the press conference) they would have heard superintendents and parents asking for a return of paper and pencil testing, which, by itself, would have narrowed the assessment window and the disruption the testing calendar creates. They would have heard calls for an end to the state mandated EOCs, returned end of year assessments to the classroom teachers. They would have heard calls to return teacher evaluations to the districts and eliminate VAM. They would have heard the superintendents asking that promotion, retention and graduation decisions be returned to the districts.

What these legislators appear to have heard is the voice of the same Foundations that, as Senator Tom Lee pointed out on 1/11/17, caused the mess in the first place. “Fewer, Better Tests” is a vehicle for the Foundation to advance its agenda. It is not a solution to the current state of accountabaloney. These bills should not be passed without striking the CBE and proficiency language.

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