The state Board of Education, which for years has pushed to toughen standards for Florida students, voted Wednesday to compromise on test scores and school grades while the state continues to wrestle with its newly revised accountability system.
The board adopted Education Commissioner Pam Stewart's recommendations for scores that would see more than half of students passing the Florida Standards Assessments. It also approved a more forgiving grading formula that will maintain the current distribution of A- through F-rated schools statewide.
The vote involves tests that were taken last spring but have yet to be formally applied to school grades. That's because of the long process required after the state switched to new standards and developed new tests. Usually, grades and scores are released in the summer following spring testing.
Schools should get their official results in February, after the rule takes effect formally.
With Wednesday's vote, the state board moderated its stance under heavy pressure from Florida's superintendents, teachers, parents and school boards. State board members reasoned that, given the circumstances of the past year, it was in everyone's best interest to move prudently.
The state experienced a year of testing woes, followed by concerns over the new test's validity and questions about whether the public had lost confidence in the state's education accountability model.
Gary Chartrand, until recently the board's chairman, said he could not justify setting the school grade formula too high, given the ongoing transition to new standards and tests that made it impossible, with only one year of data, to measure learning gains.
Those gains have been a key component of the grading formula for about a decade.
"It would be wrong of us to overshoot something we cannot reverse," Chartrand said, noting state law allows the board to increase but not decrease the grading criteria.
The board's decision flew in the face of the state business community, as well as the education foundation created by former Gov. Jeb Bush. Both groups pushed for a model they believed would provide a more honest assessment of student and school performance, especially when compared to other states. In other words, they wanted a higher bar.
"If (a grading system) says anything at all, it says A is a special thing . . . and ought to be treated as such," said John Winn, the former education commissioner who helped Bush devise Florida's education accountability model.
In comments before the board's vote, he suggested the proposal that was later approved didn't accomplish that goal.
"I was really hoping the state board would take a stand today and say the status quo is not going to stand up," Jeff Bergosh, president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, said after the vote. "I think we lowered the bar here."
But those who backed Stewart's recommendations as better than the alternatives walked away mostly satisfied.
"I think they did the right thing," said Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego, who testified before the board. "I absolutely feel like there was a strong sentiment about reviewing the entire accountability system — a number of board members who really did want to sit down when the information is available to us and do a much more comprehensive review."
Board members asked Stewart to bring them information this summer from the 2015 and 2016 test results so they can look at whether the models they approved Wednesday still work when details such as learning gains are available.
In urging the board to adopt her proposals, Stewart noted the state's process for setting scores was both inclusive and nationally recognized.
Superintendents who spoke latched onto that theme.
"Process matters," said Broward superintendent Robert Runcie, the state's superintendent of the year. "The journey is as important as the destination."
Chartrand, who initially opposed the test score proposal, said he could back it only if the state makes clear that scoring at Level 3 on a test does not mean a student is college or career ready. That's a Level 4, he said.
Earlier in the day, Stewart released templates showing how the state intends to make its student score reports more clear and complete.
Board member Michael Olenick said he also was ready to vote for tougher passing scores that aligned the new FSA with the highly respected National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, often called "the nation's report card." But after meeting with parents, teachers and students he changed his view.
It's important to take in all available information, he said, without losing track of "why we're here, which is the kids."
The board passed the commissioner's recommendation on test scores in a 6-1 vote, with only vice chairman John Padget in opposition. The vote was the same on the school grading issue.
Padget, the board's longest tenured member, forcefully pushed for FSA passing scores that reflect proficiency levels on the NAEP, which a random selection of students take every other year. He has been equally passionate about the need to create a school grading formula that requires schools to earn at least half of the available points to receive a C, and more than 65 percent to get an A.
His recommendations countered Stewart's proposals, and ultimately hit resistance from his colleagues, who said they had to listen to the full scope of voices they were hearing.
An analysis showing that Padget's proposal would create the highest number of F schools the state had ever seen — more than 500 — nudged the issue, too.
Superintendents kept up the heat during Wednesday's meeting, reiterating their support for the commissioner's proposals.
"There is no evidence that NAEP is fully aligned to or measures Florida standards," said Orange County superintendent Barbara Jenkins, president of the state superintendents association.
She also repeated her organization's desire to see school grades postponed for a year, or all set at "incomplete," because of the problems over the past year. Barring that, she said, Stewart's grading model seemed best for Florida.
Most important, Jenkins said, the state needs to take strides to restore public support for the way it runs public education.
"It is time for a complete review of the entire accountability system," she said. "It is time."
Test reform advocates who watched the session online were only somewhat mollified by the outcome.
"As painful as it will be for most of us who are parent advocates to admit . . . Stewart's recommendations were the safest," said Heide Janshon, a Pasco County parent.
They plan to keep pressing for even more change.
"It is important to note that no matter where the cut scores were set, higher or lower, this remains a grand charade," said Seminole County parent Sandy Stenoff, an organizer of a statewide group that supports families who want to opt out of high-stakes tests.
"Based on the error-ridden administration of a test, which was not aligned to the standards teachers were instructed to teach, how can the cut scores be, in any way, meaningful?"
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.