‘The Rigor Gap’ Study Suggests Florida Students May Be Falling Behind

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COVID-19 transformed the economy, health, politics and the future of education. The pandemic caused a frantic transition into a form of education that no one was prepared for – virtual learning on a scale never seen before.

End-of-course exams, a typical requirement for students enrolled in Florida public schools, were canceled for spring 2020 as a result of the pandemic. The exams count for 30% of a student’s final course grade.

As a result of the changes, a study examining students’ end-of-course exams and corresponding grades in the courses was formed by the Florida Council of 100, a non-profit and nonpartisan organization of business leaders that works to promote economic growth in Florida.

The data show that students often perform poorly on these exams but pass the corresponding course with a good grade. This discrepancy translates into a term the council has coined: “the rigor gap.” This gap is concerning for the future of education, according to the council, because the low exam scores can result in the lack of mastering skills the students need.

It presented the study to the Florida Board of Education at its November meeting, with hopes that the state would take additional action to close it over the course of the 2020-21 school year and beyond.

The council is worried that virtual learning is likely to contribute to the widening of this gap. The council’s study concluded that “Multiple Florida school districts adopted these policies that grades could only increase, or that work would not be graded, during the distance learning period.”

The study points out that this lack of accountability for students’ work was likely detrimental to the students’ mastery of key concepts in the class and can lead to future problems for students when they enter the workforce.

Chris Corr, chair of the Council of 100, explained that the study’s findings demonstrate that if teachers and other school officials focus on holding students accountable, their course grades and end-of-course exams should correlate. However, the rigor gap poses the opposite effect.

“The rigor gap we see instead indicates the contrary, the result being that students are less prepared for success at the postsecondary level or in the workplace,” he said.

Eric Fey, an economist and member of the Florida Council of 100, explained that the study shows that data conducted over 2017 and 2018 states that, “37% of 10th grade students who did not pass the ELA FSA earned a B or higher in the corresponding course (English II,) and 72% of the students earned a C or higher in the corresponding course.” The ELA FSA is the Florida Standards Assessment for english and language arts.

Fey said the disconnect between the course grades and the performance on these exams will not be solved seamlessly. However, he did offer possible solutions such as working to “identify closing of the rigor gap as an additional student need under the School Community Professional Development Act and similar programs.”

Steven Birnholz, the vice president of research of the Florida Council of 100, said many teachers may not be aware of this gap due to a lack of teacher training and professional development in this area.

“This is a longstanding problem,” he said. “This creates cognitive dissonance for parents.”

Not everyone sees the rigor gap the same way across Florida.

A student’s grade point average may be a more representative indicator of a student’s learning abilities rather than his or her performance on a standardized test, according to Megan Hendricks, the vice president and legislative chair of the Alachua County Parent Teachers Association.

She said that a student’s GPA covers more indicators that employers are looking for.

“Standardized tests don’t measure things that actually matter in the workplace such as resilience, and character, problem solving, and creativity – the things that companies are actually looking for.”

Above: Hear Megan Hendricks describe her qualms with the term “rigor gap.”

In 2015, the Florida Standards Assessment was validated by EdCount, a partner of the original test creator, and AIR. The study concluded that the assessment “did not meet the normal rigor and standardization expected with a high-stakes assessment program like the FSA.”

Hendricks said she believes the department of education doesn’t trust teachers enough to accurately measure the student’s GPA themselves.

“To me, the solution is to have better training and have teachers come together to consistently apply GPA,” she said. “I don’t think the solution is what we have now.”

She thinks that students taking end of course assessments for the 2020-2021 school year is the last thing that they need.

“We should be happy that our kids are even getting a good amount of instruction right now given everything that’s going on in society,” she said. “It’s interesting that the timing they brought it up is when teachers and students are suffering –– they don’t need any more pressure. That’s not really what’s important right now.”

Standardized tests also pose difficulties for special needs students, who are a part of exceptional student education. Pam Korithoski, the ESE chair for the Florida PTA, said that the report produced by the Florida Council of 100 doesn’t represent these students well enough.

“I think that there are a lot of factors that are not portrayed,” she said. “There isn’t anything about our kids with disabilities in there, or our ESOL students, where English is their second language as well.”

She explained that sometimes the accommodations the students receive in a classroom are not being administered while they take these assessments. For instance, the report does not specifically address how many of these students have an individualized learning plan or a 504 plan, which was made to ensure success for these students.

These learning plans facilitate the students’ learning tremendously, she said.

“So many students with IEP’s and 504’s, they do well in the classroom, because they’re getting instruction the way they need to get instruction,” she said. “The teachers are using differentiated learning to help these kids and doing what they’re trained to do, but not necessarily does that always translate onto a test.”

She said that testing anxiety is a rising concern, and more and more students are receiving 504 plans for this anxiety.

“I don’t think that’s really captured in the data,” she said. “In fact, that kind of bothers me. It’s just concerning, because one data point doesn’t necessarily reflect what you’ve learned in that classroom.”

Ben Gibson, a Florida Board of Education member, asked the Florida Council representatives what the board can do to help close the gap.

Birnholz suggested a school community professional development act.

“The rigor gap or school grading issues could be brought in as an additional student need under that act so it becomes subject to professional development throughout the state for teachers and administrators too,” he said.

Gibson said that the board could possibly look into this issue without the need for government legislation. Marva Johnson, the board’s vice chair, said that a more thorough look at the data could help prevent future problems.

“Even if it’s just simply being more diligent about how we look at the metrics that support those conclusions, so that we can give support and council,” she said. “And, you know … catch issues before they become problems, even if it’s just as simple as that.”

About Daniella Sevares

Daniella is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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