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Accountability is Working for Florida Students

• Patricia Levesque

Miami-Dade school children have made significant academic progress over the past several years. This is because of strong leadership from Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and school accountability reforms that have turned around Florida’s once dismal public education system.

In his recent analysis of accountability, reported in the Herald, I was glad to see Mr. Carvalho reject the “opt-out” fad embraced by less thoughtful school officials. Memories appear to be short in this state. Prior to Florida’s close monitoring of student achievement, millions of disadvantaged children fell through the cracks of an education system that considered their success optional.

In the early 1990s, about 70 percent of Florida’s African American and Hispanic students were functionally illiterate and overall graduation rates hovered around 50 percent. Do we want a return to this era?

I also agree with the Superintendent that we must end excessive testing. We need fewer, higher quality assessments, allowing for more instructional time in the classroom.

However, we disagree on the need to further delay accountability provisions tied to the new Florida Standards and their accompanying assessments.

This transition has been in the works for several years. Like other school districts, Miami-Dade voluntarily signed off on the higher standards in 2010. And the district received $73 million in Race to the Top funds, with part of that money intended to fund implementation of the standards.

The state also has agreed to suspend sanctions related to test scores this year. School grades will be nothing more than an informational tool to let districts know where they stand, making this year somewhat of a dress rehearsal, with normal accountability measures to return in 2015-16.

Mr. Carvalho has expressed concerns that the new tests may not be appropriate for Florida students because they are being “field tested’’ in Utah. A field test is where you give questions from a new test to a representative sample of students to ensure there are no glitches. For example, if a question receives an inordinate number of wrong answers, it is flagged for review.

Obviously, Florida has a different demographic makeup than Utah. But we are still teaching math. There isn’t Hispanic math and Asian math and African American math. All kids have to know the same math.

That doesn’t mean we turn a complete blind eye to the possibility of cultural bias. And the Florida Department of Education is not doing that.

Florida experts and educators will extensively review every question that will appear on Florida’s test this spring before the question “counts” in a school’s grade, effectively “field testing” every single item with all Florida students. They already have been reviewing and providing input on the formula used for scoring the writing tests.

The new tests to measure knowledge of the Florida Standards will be thoroughly vetted.

I should point out that the education department has more than 15 years of experience ensuring that standardized assessments given here are appropriate for Florida children and are free of cultural bias.

The next few years are going to be challenging. Test scores are going to go down this school year because the Florida Standards are harder. Some complain this sends a confusing signal to parents and the public because students actually can be making progress, even while school grades drop.

But Florida has been doing this for 15 years. We raise the bar in the classroom, causing test scores and school grades to temporarily go down. But then the scores and grades trend back up as students and teachers adapt to the challenge.

The alternative is stagnation.

This process has made Florida a national leader in making academic progress, with our most disadvantaged students the biggest beneficiaries. If people are confused by this, the problem is not with the policy. It’s with communication.

Lastly, I will point out that in 2012, Miami-Dade won the prestigious Broad Prize for being the nation’s outstanding urban school district. This year, Orange County is a finalist.

Accountability is working for our kids.

About the author

Patricia Levesque @levesquepat

Patricia is the Chief Executive Officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She served as Governor Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education, enterprise solutions for government, minority procurement, and business and professional regulation. Previously, Patricia served six years in the Florida Legislature in the Speakers Office and as staff director over education policy. Contact Patricia at