Showdown in Florida Over State's ESSA Plan and Vulnerable Students

| Corrected: February 6, 2018
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Florida is under intense scrutiny from federal officials, Democrats, and civil rights activists for how it plans to hold schools accountable for the achievement levels of historically disadvantaged student groups under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Republican-dominated state broke ground in 1999 when, under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, it instituted a strict, easy-to-understand, test-based accountability system for schools that ultimately became a model for the No Child Left Behind Act. The state last updated its system in 2015 and now mostly wants to keep that same system intact under ESSA.

But the state's approach threatens to put it in collision with requirements under the federal K-12 law.

For example, the state's lawmakers don't want to factor into its two-year-old school rating systems the achievement levels of particular student groups, such as black and Latino students, poor students, students with special needs, and English-language learners, as the law requires.

Florida lawmakers also don't want to hold schools accountable for how well students perform on English-language-proficiency exams or provide some students subject exams in students' native language, two key provisions of ESSA that amounted to a political victory for the nation's large immigrant community.

In a letter sent to the state in late December, U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos said Florida's approach runs afoul of ESSA. The state, which has not made public how it will respond, can either stand down, risk a battle with the federal government, or request a waiver, as it previously planned to do before deciding against it. State officials have until Feb. 16 to respond.

Florida, as a recognized leader in the school accountability movement and one of the nation's most ethnically diverse states, could set a precedent for how other states address their achievement gaps.

Critics of Florida's ESSA approach say failing to account for student groups' academic outcomes and unique needs will further exacerbate gaps between white and Asian students and their peers. They say that with no state oversight, district leaders will slack off on initiatives to assure disadvantaged students an equitable education.

"Data is not data for data's sake, it's to hopefully spur action that improves outcomes for kids," said Lorén Trull, a senior education policy adviser with UnidosUS, the civil rights group formerly known as the National Council of La Raza. "We're talking about historically disadvantaged students that will continue to be left out of a process that is meant to provide them additional resources."

Setting a Standard

The state's education department did not respond to a request for an interview or answer a series of questions regarding Florida's accountability system.

State officials wrote in their ESSA plan proposal that they hold the same standard for all students, no matter their ethnicity or economic status. Officials also argue that the state's existing approach has led to gains among all students.

"Florida's education system has continued to improve by nearly every metric at every level for all students," the state wrote in its ESSA plan.

An Education Week analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress scores since 2005 found improvement in some areas among Florida's English-learners, those with disabilities, and Latino and black students, but declines in others.

The analysis also found that when the state made significant gains on the NAEP exam, those improvements often aligned with national upturns in performance.

Separately, the Florida Standards Assessment data since 2015 show no significant reduction in the performance gaps between the state's wealthier white students and their more-disadvantaged peers.

Florida officials previously fought with President Barack Obama's administration over factoring in the academic performance of special education students and ELL students and in 2014 threatened to sue the federal government for intruding on their right to hold students accountable the way the state would like.

Likely to decide whether the state's ESSA plan passes federal muster will be Frank Brogan, who is the Trump administration's nominee for assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. He was an architect of Florida's original accountability system.

Brogan served as Florida's state superintendent between 1995 and 1999. He served as Florida's lieutenant governor under Jeb Bush when the state sealed into law its A+ accountability plan, one of the toughest in the nation. (Students in a school that twice gets an F are automatically given a voucher to attend a private school or a better-performing public school.)

Concerns About Equity

Across the nation, activists have historically been skeptical that state leaders will provide black, Latino, special education, and immigrant students an equitable education.

Hispanic, Asian, and black students combined today make up the majority of the nation's student body, but in many cases these parents still tend to not hold a lot of voting power in states and districts.

ESSA goes beyond the NCLB law in the extent to which states must collect and report data on student subgroup performance and detail how resources such as funding and ineffective teachers are distributed among schools. It keeps in place a key provision from NCLB: the requirement that states must consider separately the performance of historically disadvantaged groups of students when ranking schools.

Civil rights advocates and state departments have traded barbs over how far their plans under ESSA go to hold schools' feet to the fire for not closing disparities between student groups.

"From the language that I've seen coming out of the state plan, it seems to be the view ... that this is not a very big deal," said Ryan Pontier, an assistant professor at Florida International University and president of Miami-Dade's TESOL and Bilingual Education Association. "It seems to be that their argument is that they want equal opportunities, and not equitable opportunities."

Florida is one of six states (along with Delaware, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah) that plan to monitor how much students in the bottom quarter of every school boost their states' test scores from one grade to the next.

Florida is the only state that so far has refused to factor English-language-proficiency exams into its accountability system, as the law requires. (Five other states refuse to give tests in students' native language).

At the center of the debate in Florida is what methods the state should use to nudge local educators into giving extra attention to historically harmed groups of students.

Florida says the use of subgroups gums up its accountability system by double- and sometimes triple-counting some students—a disabled Haitian Creole-speaking student, for example, could qualify as ELL, black, and in need of special education services—while ignoring other students, like an underperforming white student who may also require extra resources.

Monitoring the achievement and growth of the bottom-performing quarter of students assures that schools are focusing on all students. said Patricia Levesque, the executive director of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education who has advocated for the system. The state says in its ESSA proposal most of the students who fall in the bottom quarter of academic performance in most schools also fall into one of the outlined subgroups.

"Fundamentally, the calculation is strong and sound," Levesque said about the state's current setup. "It's what the state has been doing since 2001 that's produced incredible progress in graduation rates and the narrowing of the achievement gap, especially for a state as large and diverse as we are."

The state also says in its plan that Florida's large group of English-learners—one out of every 10 students in the state—can best be tested using English/language arts exams rather than English-language-proficiency exams.

Opponents argue that some groups of students perform poorly on state exams because of systemic problems with how the schools they attend are set up, such as teacher, and even district- and statewide, bias.

They say an accountability system's role, in part, should be to force principals and district superintendents to identify discriminatory practices and fix them.

"You cannot hold all students to the same standards, because all students do not start out at the same starting blocks," said T. Willard Fair, president and CEO for the Urban League of Greater Miami. "Ultimately we want all kids to have the same standards of excellence, but the pathway to getting there, the process for doing it, the timeframe associated with it should be based on who they are, where they are, not based on who they are in comparison to where others are."

They also say that English/language arts exams are an invalid way to tell if a student has a good grasp of the English language.

"When our students don't have the ability to fully understand that test and to demonstrate their knowledge on that test because of limitations in English-language proficiency, then we are limited ... in the conclusions that we make about those results," said Debra Giambo, a professor of English to speakers of other languages and literacy at Florida Gulf Coast University.

The state's education department and civil rights advocates continue to paint widely different pictures of the performance of the state's student subgroups.

In the introduction of its ESSA plan, the department says minority groups have made large, sweeping gains and said the state performs well on several national and worldwide ranking, including Education Week's annual Quality Counts report in which Florida ranks 11th among states on academic achievement.

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"Florida is focused on closing the achievement gap among subgroups to ensure that all students are able to reach their full potential," the department writes.

But advocates for various student groups argue that the state's approach is problematic.

"People like to take the data and cherry-pick from it," said Mari Corugedo, state director for Florida's League of United Latin American Citizens chapter and a Miami-Dade County schools ELL teacher. "I think the data has to be seen collectively—the good and the bad—and collectively [we] do something about it."

Vol. 37, Issue 19, Pages 1, 23

Published in Print: February 7, 2018, as Showdown in Florida Over State ESSA Plan, Vulnerable Students
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Correction: 
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect name for Florida’s statewide performance exam. The test is the Florida Standards Assessment, not FCAT.

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