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A little more on Florida's ESSA plan

By Jeffrey S. Solochek
Associated Press
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

After Florida submitted its ESSA plan late Wednesday, it quickly became clear that the waivers the state Department of Education planned to seek were no longer there.

A closer read of the final version, though, reveals that while the state did not request any formal waiver of the rules, its plan to work around those rules still exists. The ideas are instead woven into the general application.

The proposal continues to make provisions to not use native-language proficiency tests for English learners. It would still report subgroup performance, including the addition of English learners, but base the school grade on all students, rather than separate groups.

"By bringing all subgroups together into the lowest-performing 25%, Florida schools and LEAs focus on the students in each of these subgroups most in need of assistance," the plan states. "In addition, using the lowest-performing 25% avoids the double and triple counting of students that fall into multiple subgroups."

It also retains plans to use some middle school students' math exam scores in reporting high school results, if they are taking advanced courses rather than grade-level material. Florida recently stopped the practice of double-testing middle schoolers in algebra and geometry courses.

"By including the end-of-course (EOC) assessment results of middle school students taking high school mathematics courses in the school grades system, Florida's accountability system motivates school districts to encourage capable students to accelerate their education by taking high school classes before entering high school," according to the plan.

In most ways, Florida's ESSA plan seeks to maintain its existing test-based accountability system, with few changes. That should come as little surprise, as commissioner Pam Stewart has made clear for years the state's intention of staying its course.

Department officials said they decided that using the federal application template, rather than pursuing waivers, should be the path to pursue toward approval.

"We are confident that our plan will be the best approach for our students as well as aligning with the law," deputy communications director Cheryl Etters said via email.

Asked why the state sent in the changed proposal without seeking another round of public comment, Etters wrote that the state collected plenty of input over time.

"We had two public input windows - last summer and this summer," she noted. "During the first window, the public was asked to provide input on the law generally. Then, this summer, we requested input on the DOE draft plan. As the website states, in addition to the comments we received through the online survey, DOE received input through outreach efforts to educator associations and stakeholder groups, and the commissioner convened a superintendents' workgroup to provide input on major decision points."

Rosa Castro-Feinberg, a leading civil rights activist and former Miami-Dade School Board member, said she found the changes within the plan not to be positive.

"Reporting results is not the same as including those results in the accountability system," she told the Gradebook. "Instead of asking for permission to waive statutory requirements, the state plan submitted on Wednesday assumes permission to ignore portions of the law have been granted."

The plan now heads to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for consideration.