A Change In Definition Of Level 3 WILL Affect Passing Rates And School Grades: Don’t Do It, Florida!

If you are short on time, here is the summary version (complete details follow below):

  • The Foundation for Florida’s Future (FFF) wants to align FSA passing scores to NAEP “proficiency”. NAEP proficiency is a bar set well above grade level.
  • SB926 and HB773, the “Fewer, Better Tests” bills, were written by the Foundation to align Level 3 passing scores on future assessments with NAEP proficiency.
  • At the 2/15/17 “Fewer, Better Tests” press conference, the proficiency language was never mentioned.
  • On 3/14/17, Rep. Diaz introduced HB773, calling for an honest conversation and using the words “grade level” and “proficiency” interchangeably.
  • On 3/14/17, Rep. Diaz warned “Every time that we go tinker with testing or the accountability system there is always an unintended consequence.” We agree.
  • Public testimony at 3/21/17 Senate Education Committee workshop, generally, opposed the proficiency language in SB926.
  • On  April 3, 2017, facing public outcry, the Senate Education Committee removed the proficiency language from SB926.
  • On April 18, 2017: the Foundation’s CEO published priorities focusing on aligning passing scores with NAEP making their ultimate goals clear.
  • On April 19, 2017, Senator Brandes attempted to re-insert language into SB926 defining Level 3, on future assessments, as “grade level” and admitted the goal was to set new “goal posts.”
  • Senator Montford noted “It sounds real simple but it’s quite complicated when we look at the impact that this will have even though it sounds reasonable to be at grade level.”
  • House Education Staff admitted “there are other sections of law that get impacted as a result of the amendment.”
  • Senator Brandes withdrew his amendment but vowed to bring it back.
  • On April 20, 2017, Representative Diaz attempted to amend HB549 with language changing the definition of Level 3 to “grade level” insisting such a process was like changing a label on a can of lima beans. (It is not.)
  • Rep. Diaz’ amendment also included references to education standards that have not been use in Florida for years.
  • Rep. Jones filed a handwritten amendment to delete the “grade level label.”
  • HB773, with the original proficiency language still intact,  is scheduled to be heard in House Education Committee on 4/24/17.

Parents and Educators currently understand what Level 3 means: it means passing. And any adjustment should be made knowing full well that passing rates WILL be affected. That is the honest truth.

Determination of passing scores (level 3) on state assessments should be the job of educators, not legislators. Simply changing the name of an achievement level CAN have significant impact on failure rates. The goal of changing the label of Level 3 passing scores is NOT merely a name change. Raising the passing score will ensure more schools are labelled as failures and, given the recent passage of HB5105/”Schools of Hope”, would hasten the expansion of out of state charter school networks across the state.

Since raising the bar on the FSA is a primary goal of the Foundation, legislators should expect language designed to change the level of passing scores (Level 3) to be hidden in Floor amendments.

We encourage legislators to remain vigilant and refuse to approve such changes.

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For several years, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future (FFF) has advocated raising the bar on state assessments to match NAEP proficiency levels (we have written about it here and here). They refer to this alignment as narrowing the “honesty gap.”  Such alignment is NOT endorsed by the Florida Department of Education and was rejected 6-1 by the state Board of Education in January 2016, after months of investigation and deliberation regarding cut scores for the new FSA. Such alignment is not even recommended by NAEP, if you really want be honest.

This legislative session, despite public outcry from parents, teachers and superintendents, the FFF has tried multiple maneuvers to deceive lawmakers into passing legislation that would change the definition of the passing score, Level 3, on future state assessments. We encourage Florida Legislators to reject such language change. Do not be duped into changing the definition of Level 3, which could be used to raise passing scores leading to massive student failure rates and inappropriately labeling schools as failures.

Remember: Level 3 is the passing score on which School Grades are calculated. A change in definition of Level 3 will, most assuredly, affect passing rates and school grades.

SB926 and HB773 were written by the FFF with the primary intention of quietly passing this proficiency language. The bill, called the “Fewer Better Tests” bills, were announced with much fanfare at a press conference on 2/15/2017. The proficiency language was never mentioned at that press conference but was celebrated in the FFF press releases (here and here):

  • “Senate Bill 926 and House Bill 773… authorizes the Florida Department of Education to make achievement level 3 mean that a student is proficient and able to succeed in the next grade.” [A note from Accountabaloney: “able to succeed in the next grade” is the current definition of a Level 4 FSA score.]
  • “Jobs of today and tomorrow demand skill proficiency, and we cannot rest until all children are working on or above grade-level.” David Dyer, Chair, Florida Council of 100 PreK-12 Education Committee.” [This statement reeks of Lake Wobegon…]
  • “We strongly believe that our state must align academic expectations with the universally accepted definition of ‘proficiency’, making clear the criteria for success in our classrooms.” Shawn Frost, School Board Member, Indian River County.” [Note: Frost is a member of the pro-school choice, fringe school board association, the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, which receives funding from the Foundation.]

Senators, after hearing an outpouring of concerns from stakeholders, recognized the threat posed by the proficiency language. Senator Simmons filed an amendment to SB926 on 3/27/17, eliminating the proficiency language, leaving Level 3 as currently defined: “satisfactory.” A week later, on 4/3/17, Senator Simmons, no doubt under pressure from the FFF, filed a substitute amendment which removed the proficiency language but added a study of achievement levels as “a compromise”, duplicating the work of the DOE and BOE in January 2016. Senators reluctantly accepted the substitute amendment but admitted they preferred the initial one.

On the House side, Sponsor Manny Diaz Jr has insisted that establishing Level 3 as “proficient” was an honest conversation and, to date, HB773 has not modified its language (HB773 is on the 4/24/17 House Education Committee calendar, but as of this writing no new amendments have been filed).

On 4/19/17, before the Senate Rules Committee, Senator Brandes filed a FFF-influenced amendment that defined Level 3 on state tests as “grade level.” We advise you to watch the entire discussion, beginning at 1:16:25, to see how little some policy makers really understand about our current education system.  As Senator Montford (a former superintendent who understands the accountability system all too well) clearly explained; “It sounds real simple but it’s quite complicated when we look at the impact that this will have even though it sounds reasonable to be at grade level.”  

There are a few interactions that bear highlighting, where Senator Brandes makes it clear that the labeling of Level 3 will “set the bar” for the state assessment and is NOT, merely, a name change:

Montford: “Bottom line, what are we trying to do here?… One of the criticisms of our state assessment program is we continue to move the goal posts, if you will, we continue to change the rules, we continue to change the scores, if you will, and there is just a lot of concern among the practitioners out there, so I guess other than trying to say that Level 3 would be defined at grade level, what are we, from an academic standpoint, what are trying to do here?”

Brandes: “I think you are exactly right, we are trying to fix the goal posts here.


Thurston: Does this increase the number of students who would be promoted?

Brandes: “I think it sets the bar of level 3, after next year.”

The conversation became so confused that House Ed Committee staff were brought in to answer questions. They suggested that the practical effect of such a name change would impact several sections of law.

Senator Lee asked, “Is it fair to say that we shouldn’t be doing this unless we’re doing it at the same time, commensurate with that other statute, so they move along in the same way?” The staff replied, “Yes, Sir. There are other sections of law that get impacted as a result of the amendment.”

Senator Brandes then withdrew his amendment, vowing to bring it back to the floor “where all the impacted sections can be addressed.”

The following day, before the House Education Committee (watch at 2:30), Representative Diaz presented a 17 page amendment to Rep. Fine’s HB549. This amendment brought in several variations on the Montford inspired amendments to SB926, including elimination of the Algebra 2 EOC and return to paper and pencil testing. Diaz’ amendment also included essentially identical language to the Brandes amendment: “Beginning with any new contract for the statewide, standardized ELA and mathematics assessments entered into after July 1, 2017, achievement level 3 shall be defined as on grade level for each new assessment,” but unlike Brandes, Diaz insisted such language would NOT “set the bar.” Hmmmm, who to believe…

[The Diaz amendment also included: “Students who score on grade level may still need additional support to achieve the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards for the next grade level”, which is confusing because Florida doesn’t teach the NGSSS standards anymore. For the last 3 years, Florida has taught the new, Common Core aligned, Florida Standards. We suspect this was a hastily written addition in response to the Brandes amendment fiasco. Certainly the Foundation is not encouraging a change in standards, as well?]

Rep. Diaz, from the get go, defended Foundation’s desire to change the definition of Level 3: “It requires in the new contract to swap the label out on Level 3 from satisfactory to grade level and just to clarify that is just a swapping of labels we are not changing any achievement levels there.” He explained with a “bizarre analogy” claiming that the name change would be like changing the label on a can of lima beans, the beans inside would still be the same, only the label would change.

[This not just a bizarre “bean can” analogy, it is a deceptive one. Rep. Diaz is proposing the “label change” for any new testing contracts entered into, NOT  for the current contract. Using his analogy, he is asking for the label to be changed only on NEW CANS OF BEANS. The current FSA contract just entered into the first of 3 one year renewals and a completely new contract will be negotiated in 2 years.]

At 8:20, Rep. Shevrin Jones asks whether the changed “label” of Level 3 had the potential to mislabel students. Diaz replied: “Again, I want to be clear about this, if you are talking about level 3 issue we are just talking about changing the label from satisfactory to grade level. Right now, in the state of florida the level 4 is labeled as proficient and label 3 is labelled as satisfactory, this would change it to level 3 being grade level  and level 4 still being proficient so it does not change the score that students would have to get to get the label it is just clearer for parents to understand that when they are at the moment that the student is taking the test they at that moment are at grade level.”

At this point, Representative Diaz went on to confuse “Grade Equivalent” with “grade level” (they are not the same) and to suggest that FSA score reports could be redesigned to tell parents their child’s grade equivalent, something he believes parents want to know. [At the risk of diving too deep into the weeds, in a standards based education system, like we have in Florida, the appropriate assessment is a criterion referenced test (CRT), meaning it tests students against the prescribed grade level standards. Cut scores on CRTs should not be determined by percentile ranking but by how many questions a student answered correctly. Norm Referenced Tests (NRT) would be a better vehicle for determining grade level equivalency. Such assessments are often used by districts for progress monitoring.]

After assuring the committee that “grade level means grade level and it doesn’t mean any change of scores”, Diaz’s amendment went to public comment, which was interrupted by a hand written amendment by Rep. Jones, which removed “lines 161-167” (the grade level label). The amendment passed and the language was removed “for now”, per Rep. Diaz.

Why do we not believe Representative Diaz when he claims that changing the definition of Level 3 to grade level is just like changing a label on a can of beans and will not affect the scores needed to pass state assessments? Because, when initially presenting HB773 to the House PreK-12 Quality, on 3/14/17, Rep. Jones asked Rep Diaz, “How do we come up with the level 3 score as proficient on each new assessment?”. In his response, he uses proficiency and grade level interchangeable and repeatedly alludes to the FFF’s “honesty gap.”:

“I think when we have that conversation, wherever you stand on the issue, we need to have an honest conversation and that is we can’t start to label a student proficient in the earlier grades, if you look at that scale and that student gets all the…  you know they’re making gains every year they’re in school that they’re tested but they get to the 12th grade and they graduate and they’re still not on grade level. So, what kind of… you know, it’s our responsibility to make sure that a student, if they’re making progress, that at some point they get to proficient and they are on grade level before they graduate, or at least before they take the test that deems them proficient at the end of their high school years. So, I think it’s having an honest conversation about what does that accountability mean to us as a state and as educators, and we should be striving to make our students proficient, we should not be graduating students that are not at grade level… if you go back to the way things were in Florida before we put all these accountability measures in, I believe the statistic that… there were students graduating from out high schools that were reading functioning at an 8th grade level I find that’s totally unacceptable, obviously, I think that what this does is it makes sure that our progress matches our conversation about being on grade level.”

In that same meeting, Rep. Diaz warned “Every time that we go tinker with testing or the accountability system there is always an unintended consequence.” We agree completely. We advise lawmakers to NOT tinker with the definition of passing scores; the entire accountability system rests on those scores.

Lest you think the Brandes and Diaz “grade level amendments” might reflect a softening of the Foundation’s position, on April 18th, the day before the Brandes “grade level” discussion, Foundation CEO Patricia Levesque published their priorities for developing school accountability systems under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Their primary area of focus? Aligning state assessments with NAEP:

“We believe accountability systems should focus teachers on three basic outcomes.

  1. Help all students achieve proficiency or better in the core subjects. Proficiency should be defined as the knowledge necessary for success in college or a meaningful career. States determine their own proficiency expectations and we encourage them not to short-shrift their students by dumbing down expectations to create the illusion of success. A good rule of thumb on state’s proficiency goals is to compare the percent of 4th or 8th graders a state identifies as proficient on state reading and math tests with the percent identified as proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. If the gap between these two numbers is in the double digits, your state may have too low a proficiency expectation…”

The Foundation is making it clear. Their goal is alignment of proficiency with NAEP narrowing their so-called “honesty gap”, and they will exhaust all legislative efforts to do so.  The goal of changing the label of Level 3 passing scores is NOT merely a name change. The goal is to use such language to raise the bar on state assessments. This will affect labels: it will label more students as inadequate, more teachers as ineffective and more schools as failing.

Parents and Educators currently understand what Level 3 means. It means passing. And any adjustment should be made knowing full well that passing rates WILL be affected. That is the honest truth.


  1. Deb Herbage

    Thanks for this article! Well done!!! Goes to show you who is really running the education show here in FL. So sick to death of the FEE and FFF. NOTHING to do with education gets through the senate without Jeb’s blessing…..Nothing. Those senators and legislators have NO CLUE what the hell they are voting on or in let alone writing the bills. Those education bills have Jeb’s stench all over them.

  2. Deb Herbage

    Thanks to Jeb and HIS bills getting passed in the senate – charterschoolpalooza is on it’s way.

  3. Dennis S. Smith

    Fantastic article. What was the end result? Did they raise the level 3? I am a public school teacher in Pensacola, FL.

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