School Board Member Group Accuses Duval Of Inflating Test Numbers, Calls For Investigation

Jun 26, 2018

Updated 7/6 at 12:25 p.m.

Updated 6/27 at 8:15 a.m.

Update: Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart determined the accused districts did nothing wrong. Read the story here.

Original Story

The Florida Coalition of School Board Members group said it will be asking the state to investigate high state test scores in several school districts including Duval County. The request has not yet been made.

Duval County students scored much higher on this year's civics end of course exam, with 84 percent of students taking the exam passing. That’s an 18 point improvement from the year before. The state average is 71 percent.

“Several school districts made dramatic improvements in their passing rates on middle-school civics tests – a significant component in the state’s school grading formula. A closer look at the DOE’s data shows those districts also saw dramatic declines in the number of students who took the tests,” an emailed release from the group read.

In 2017 8,649 Duval students took the civics test compared to 5,739 this past school year. The Florida Coalition of School Board Members said fewer test takers likely contributed to higher scores.

The Duval County School District’s Chief Academic Officer Mason Davis said there was no wrongdoing, adding although fewer students took the test, Duval is complying with state statute and the school board’s policy. He said the change started with the district’s yearly review of both the student progression plan and master scheduling guidelines.

“Through those reviews, multiple data points are reviewed and changes are made to better prepare students by adding prerequisites and course progression pathways,” he said.

Davis said specifically for civics, law studies was included as a recommended prerequisite for students based on their most recent Florida Standards Assessment scores, English score and reading level.

He said there have been similar increases in prior years. In 2015-2016 the district increased 12 percentage points in Biology. In 2016-17 algebra 1 and geometry increased by 23 and 32 percentage points respectively.

For instance, 6,958 Duval students took the geometry end of year test in 2015-2016. That number dropped to 4,345 students taking it the following year. This past school year it’s back up to 7,649 students taking the test.

“This (year’s) change is also consistent with algebra I, geometry, and biology in the year of those major percentage point increases,” Davis said. “Moving forward, there will be an increase in the number of students assessed each year.”

But the coalition, which Duval County Public Schools Board member Scott Shine is a part of, wants the state Education Department to delay releasing middle school grades in certain counties until the scores are investigated.

“When there are any irregularities in that data I think that is where our organization just wants to ensure that the department of education has the opportunity to look to it, to make sure that those processes are being used with integrity and not being used in any other manner,” said the coalition’s president Bridget Ziegler.

For instance, Northwestern Middle School is one of three Duval schools in danger of being taken over by an external operator next school year if it doesn’t make at least a C grade. From 2014 to 2017 the school had a civics test pass rate of around 58 percent.  This year the rate was 86 percent. But while 162 students took the test in 2017, just 29 took it this year.

“A-F grades are designed to give parents clear, transparent measures of school performance,” Shine said. “If schools game the system, they are essentially lying to parents about the performance of their children's schools.”

Civics, which is part of social studies, is factored into school grades.

Davis said the school district is extremely excited about Duval’s performance in civics. He said the 18-percentage point increase in performance on the civics exam is consistent with increases students have demonstrated in other courses that end with a state end of course exam.

“The fact that any organization would call for an investigation into improprieties on assessments due to performance increases is an affront to all of the teachers and students who worked so diligently to prepare for the exam, and their families who supported them,” Davis said.

The Florida Coalition of School Board Members group was established in 2015 and is made up of individual Florida school board members who mostly share conservative values, Ziegler said.

Fiscal responsibility and parental empowerment in school choice are two issues the group is passionate about.

Other districts the coalition said it will be asking the state to investigate include Polk and Manatee counties. Duval’s new superintendent Diana Greene is coming from Manatee.

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Greene said Manatee followed the lead of several other districts — including Sarasota — in deciding to allow struggling readers take the test as eighth graders, instead of as seventh graders. The roughly 1,000 students who didn’t take the test this year will take it next year.

As of Tuesday afternoon Ziegler said the group has yet to reach out to the state about its concerns, and she isn’t sure what the timeline will be on a response.

The Florida Department of Education said Wednesday morning it has not received a request for investigation.  

“The Florida Department of Education takes very seriously the importance of valid measure and assessment of Florida schools. School grades will be released as soon as they are ready. There is an existing process for residents to raise concerns for the department’s review," FDOE Press Secretary Audrey Walden said in an emailed statement.

Editor's note: Story updated with comment from the Florida Department of Education. 

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.