SR 3-26-15 Volume 4, Issue 17

An Open Letter on Assessment to St. Johns County School District Parents

AssessmentsVideo_FrameGrab01Watch the Superintendent’s Open Letter on Assessment to St. Johns County School District Parents (Video)

The purpose of this letter is to update you on where we are on assessments, and accountability, both from a state and local perspective. There has been so much focus on this in the media and in our schools. Many of the stories circulating in the press right now have to do with problems administering the computer-based format of the state writing assessment.

Assessment in general is not a bad thing as it allows us to accurately measure the progress of students, schools and school districts. I firmly believe that assessments provide our children the opportunity to celebrate their learning, plain and simple. Not only is it useful when applied appropriately, it has allowed our community to quantify the excellence in our school district.

That said, assessment can, and has been, overdone especially in the elementary grades. Compounding the issue is the simultaneous implementation of the new Florida Standards Assessments (FSAs) and District Determined Assessments/End-of-Course Exams (DDAs/EOC) both of which are required by state law, to be implemented this year. Currently 81 percent of the assessments listed on our testing calendar have a direct link to state statute.

We will keep working with our legislature to call for change and action in the area of testing so that we are doing what is best for each and every child. Participation in state standardized testing is mandatory and as your superintendent, I am required to follow the law. With that said, we must determine what is developmentally appropriate for students and work to implement those forms of measurement to assess their abilities, understanding and learning.

I am a proponent of high standards…period. The new Florida Standards represent the next step for our incredible students and quite frankly, these standards support what good teachers have done all along. We cannot move our students forward without the high standards and high expectations that define our school system.

The FSA, state testing program, which replaced the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) is stated to represent a step up in rigor and a change in assessment design. These fundamental changes include asking our students to compare texts, justify answers, apply knowledge, think critically and communicate their answers. The new FSA measures much more than basic language arts and math literacy.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the challenges these new standards and assessments pose for all stakeholders. Everything from instructional resources to professional development has been retooled to facilitate the implementation of the standards over time and we have come a long way, but there is still work to be done. I can say, with confidence, the positive changes I have seen in instruction and student learning have been nothing short of amazing. Our teachers are remarkable and they have my deepest respect and admiration.

We will continue administering these assessments this year. As I stated earlier, the law requires it and it would not be prudent to stop after more than 67 percent of elementary DDAs will be completed by the end of this week. This also provides us the ability to evaluate results and make decisions based not only on student performance data, but on the logistical and technical aspects of administering these assessments and the developmental appropriateness for our students. I intend to form a task force this summer to do a thorough evaluation of everything related to testing.

While our district only experienced short-term problems affecting small groups of students during the implementation of FSA writing, the rocky start in some districts was due to technology. As a state we are not fully prepared for this level of computer-based testing, nor have we had the opportunity to develop confidence in the performance of the testing vendor. Computer-based testing is a logical step…when students are ready and when district infrastructure can suggest a successful implementation of the testing program.

I believe the concerns in the initial implementation of the FSA are two-fold: the high stakes consequences of the test and the unknown nature inherent in any new test. I remember the same concerns being expressed during the initial implementation of the FCAT. The glaring difference between then and now was that consequences were delayed until the appropriate time.

I am a strong advocate for accountability and remain concerned that we will lose what we have gained by an implementation that is not appropriate or timely. This will make the accountability system overheat, and the focus will become the test, not the learning.

In addition, the simultaneous implementation of EOCs and DDAs has added additional stress and confusion. Florida statutes require an EOC for every course in every grade that is not covered by the FSA. This created an enormous burden on our district to develop/select valid and reliable exams in every subject taught. This requirement resulted in over 560 exams being developed and implemented this spring. This was the law and superintendents expressed concerns in 2011, when the law was passed.

Just as importantly, we needed to administer these tests in a manner that affords time for the district to carefully review all the results since those results often play a part in the teacher evaluation system. For that, and other logistical reasons, such as the need to encourage computer-based assessment to ensure a higher level of security, the exams were administered earlier in the year than we would have preferred.

This has caused confusion between the FSA testing schedule and the DDA schedule, especially since both are usually reliant on computer-based implementation. This is why the district assessment calendar is so complicated and takes up so much of the second semester. The impact on schools forced them to develop elaborate internal assessment schedules which in some way impact the operation of the school and the normal availability of computer labs, media centers and other facilities.

With the lessons we learn from this year, I anticipate the DDAs will be moved closer to the end of the year at a time more commensurate with the typical administration of end-of-course exams.

I want to pause and express my greatest admiration to assessment team and the teachers who were assembled to develop these assessments. Their dedication to the task was simply phenomenal. To date, we have administered over 45,000 individual district created assessments, almost all of which were administered successfully.

In addition to testing every student in every subject, the legislature requires we use these result to evaluate teachers. It is my belief that districts need the flexibility to use multiple measures to assess the student performance portion of a teacher’s evaluation as opposed to being required to use the FSA or DDA exclusively. I am also a proponent of moving the student achievement portion of a teacher’s assessment from 50 percent to 30 percent of the evaluation.

Lastly, our district does administer District Formative Assessments (DFAs). While the state does in fact require progress monitoring, I am a proponent of low stakes formative assessments to inform the teachers on the progress of the student. In many ways, including research, formative is the type of assessment most closely aligned with helping children learn.

Undoubtedly this alphabet soup of assessments has created confusion for us all. Perhaps this chart can display the requirements more clearly:

Assessment Authority Purpose Students
FSA Florida Statute1008.22 / 1012.34 School Grade and Student/Teacher Accountability Grades 3-10 ELAGrades 3-8 Math
DDAs Florida Statute 1008.3 / 1008.22 End-of-course exams for student and teacher evaluation (not covered by FSA) All subjectsAll grades
DFAs Florida Statute 1008.25 Formative Assessment All in selected courses

 

My message is simple, we need to administer these assessments, but be cautious on using the results to apply consequences. We also need to amend the language of “every subject, every grade” to relieve over testing.

I must add that I have never been more proud of our students, teachers, school leaders, district team and community. Together we have accomplished what few would have thought possible, and we have done so in an atmosphere of change that is largely influenced by outside influences. Through it all we have never lost sight of what is most important, ensuring that our students graduate with good character having achieved levels of learning that make their post-secondary dreams possible.

While we have embarked on uncharted territory in the form of these new assessments and implementation thereof, I am asking for your trust that we will get through this together. I am committed to ensuring that the results of these assessments will be fair to our students and teachers. The most important thing you, as a parent, can do right now is to relieve your children of any anxiety related to testing and encourage them to celebrate their learning.

Thank you for the privilege of serving as your superintendent.

Executive Cabinet Update

Operations

Facilities Planning & Growth Management, State Reporting and Student Records

The Facilities Planning & Growth Management Department has just completed working with schools and the ESE Department to generate Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) projections for each school for the 2015-2016 School Year. These projections begin the annual budget process and facilities discussions for the coming school year.

The department also continues to review School Concurrency Determination applications. School Concurrency Determination requires that necessary educational infrastructure be in place, under construction or planned to be under construction within three years prior to the approval of a new residential development. There have been 12 applications submitted this year to date. In 2014 there were 22 applications processed.

The State Reporting Department has recently completed Survey 3 and continues to work with schools to revise the data as needed. This is one of multiple required annual Department of Education Surveys. Accurate reporting ensures that all required components of the district’s educational system are reported and that the appropriate funding is received.

Government Relations

The 2015 Florida Legislative Session officially began on Tuesday, March 3. Over the last few weeks the Legislature has been working to address several high priority issues including the implementation of amendment 1, the state’s school accountability system, and health care funding.

The Governor has proposed record per-student funding for education and over $600 million in tax cuts. These proposals are at risk as the state faces uncertainty over the future of the Low Income Pool (LIP) program which is a $2 billion federal-state program that helps Florida hospitals that treat large numbers of uninsured, under-insured and Medicaid patients. The program is set to expire on June 30 and the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal regulatory agency has said it won’t continue the program in its current form.

The Senate has moved forward in building their budget under the assumption that the LIP funding will not be there, resulting in limited dollars being available to fund the Governor’s proposals. The House is moving forward on their budget believing the federal funds will come through. This could result in the House and Senate building budgets that look drastically different making it more difficult to work through during the conferencing process.

Both the House and the Senate have been working on proposals to address concerns relating to over-testing and teacher evaluations. The House is poised to pass its proposal which reduces the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation based on student data from 50 percent to not less than one third, eliminates the 11th grade English Language Arts testing requirement, and provides school districts flexibility on local assessments. The Senate proposal is getting closer to the House proposal but is still working its way through the committee process. Neither proposal would set this year as a baseline year, nor would school grades be issued per superintendents’ and school boards’ requests.

As we near the half-way point in the Session, the district continues to advocate for additional funding for capital outlay projects, changes to the state’s school accountability system as we transition to the new Florida Standards Assessment, and increased accountability for charter schools.

To view the district’s legislative platform, please visit: http://www.stjohns.k12.fl.us/SJCSD%20Legislative%20Platform%202015%20-%20Final.pdf

School Services/Athletics

The School Services Department has been reviewing Hardship Out-of-Zone Transfer applications received to date. The online and paper applications are available on the website at http://www.stjohns.k12.fl.us/depts/schoolserv/transfers and must be submitted annually. With an average of over 1,800 applications processed each year, parents are encouraged to complete and submit their application as early as possible.

The Student Code of Conduct is being reviewed for possible updates and revisions for the 2015-2016 school year. Suggestions will soon be gathered from district administrators, principals, assistant principals and deans of students, as well as school SAC Teams, and the district’s legal counsel.

The School Services Department, in conjunction with some of the student services staff, has recently developed a presentation relative to strategies for juvenile support in St. Johns County. The School Board and most recently, assistant principals, have viewed the presentation.

Several high schools recently completed exceptionally successful sports seasons. Nominations from each of the high schools have been received for the David Mathis Pursuing Victory with Honor Award. The recipient will be announced at the annual American Youth Character Awards banquet on Thursday, April 30.

Student Services

The Student Services Department, in collaboration with St. Augustine Youth Services (SAYS), is providing a Mobile Crisis Response Team (MCRT) to all of schools beginning on March 23 through a grant. This three-year grant provides three licensed mental health therapists who will assess school-age students in crisis, targeting those who have thoughts or behaviors of harming themselves or others. This grant also incorporates a wraparound model focused on family-centered behavioral healthcare. An additional position, Care Coordinator, will integrate all aspects of care and a collaborative network of providers to devise a treatment plan with the family. Referral to the MCRT will be made by designated school staff or youth resource officers. The team can be contacted Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. via a hotline phone number that will be provided to all schools.

Transportation

The Transportation Department recently completed the second school bus ridership count for the 2014-2015 school year. Currently, there are approximately 19,500 students riding 168 bus routes daily. Having completed the student ridership count, the department is beginning work on the school bus routes for the 2015-2016 school year. The routes will be submitted to the School Board for approval at the May 12 School Board meeting. Additionally, the department members have been coordinating with the curriculum department regarding support for summer school.

On the Horizon

American Youth Character Awards Banquet

The annual American Youth Character Awards Banquet will be held on Thursday, April 30 at 6 p.m. at Anastasia Baptist Church. This event recognizes high school juniors and seniors throughout the county who have been nominated by their schools for displaying the Six Pillars of Character — Citizenship, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, Trustworthiness and Respect — in their daily lives. Also, two students will be awarded special scholarships, the David Macaulay Mathis Memorial Pursuing Victory with Honor Award for displaying character on the athletic field and the Tucker McCarty Memorial Scholarship for exuding good character in an effort to make the world a better place.

Status Reports

St. Johns County School District Best Communities for Music Education Designation

The St. Johns County School District has received a 2015 Best Communities for Music Education designation by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation. This designation recognizes the commitment of school administration and community leaders, teachers and parents who believe in music education and who are working to ensure that it is part of a complete education for all children. Only three school districts in Florida received this honor.

In addition, Hickory Creek Elementary School received the Support Music Merit Award, one of only three schools in the state to be bestowed with this award for the support of music programs, access to music education for all students and music class participation.

Did You Know…?

“If you add to the truth, you subtract from it.”

~The Talmud