Responses to questions about Heather Wright’s leadership of the Polk Accountability Office

Citizens for Better Educational Leadership (CBEL) wants to reform the mission, focus, and even the very name of the Polk School District’s Office of Assessment, Accountability and Evaluation. It’s a key priority for us. That’s the office Heather Wright leads. It’s the office responsible for the testing experience in Polk County. We do not think it is functioning well under Wright’s leadership.

Below, you’ll find a question and answer exchange constructed from a series of questions I’ve asked about Wright’s roles in Polk. The answers provide a useful baseline for moving forward with reforms. If you’ve been reading the multiple Heather Wright-related essays leading up to this, the context will be clear. If not, you may need to go back and refresh yourself. In any event, I’m going to publish this question and answer exchange with very little embellishment.

But I will say this first: these answers portray a person with many, many responsibilities and ambitions. The Polk testing experience does not seem to be among the top of them. These answers include a detailed and extensive discussion of the $4.3 million brant Wright administered, which I’ve been scrutinizing.

It’s not precisely clear who wrote these answers, but Polk District spokeswoman Leah Lauderdale said, “Heather Wright has provided information as well as other district staff members in an effort to answer your questions.”

It’s also worth noting that I received these answers the morning before the District’s welcome Friday afternoon announcement of changes to some assessment policies — and commitment to further collaboration moving ahead.

Here is the exchange.

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Is Heather Wright using Polk County children’s data in her pursuit of a doctorate?

Not at this time.

If so, who gave her permission to do that?

Heather Wright is pursuing a doctorate. She is still formulating her proposal for a thesis, which has not been approved for research at this time. She may request permission through the district’s normal processes to use student data. Typically, her office would be responsible for final approval. However, any doctoral candidate in the Assessment, Accountability and Evaluation Office would need final approval through the Superintendent’s Office.

If so, how do her data needs affect her pursuit of Polk testing and assessment policies?

No employee’s need for data drives testing and assessment policies. School District testing and assessment policies are guided by Florida statutes and the Florida Department of Education.

Wright’s test forum bio stated that CFAC members are “working together to implement best practices in assessment.” Can you please document a specific “best practice in assessment” that Wright has implemented and how it has helped Polk County teachers do their jobs and improved the educational experience for Polk students? [CFAC is the Central Florida Assessment Co-operative, which Wright chairs, according to her Linked-in profile]

Heather Wright oversees the Assessment, Accountability and Evaluation Office.

Beginning last year, she and others worked to reduce the number of end of year assessments. The number has been reduced 54 percent. They continue to work strategically to eliminate end of year assessments where possible. [Lauderdale later provided a spreadsheet itemizing the EoY assessment load of last school year versus this one. It’s fairly confusing. I’ll need to do more research on this to determine if the reduction was a meaningful thing — or just a throwaway stat. I don’t know if it came from a concerted district effort or as a byproduct of state-level bureaucratic churn.]

Does the $4.3 million “Hard to Assess” grant only cover 2015 and 2016? I thought it went back several years and that Heather Wright was administering it while in Osceola County. Please tell me the full chronological extent of the grant. Example: Began xx/xx/xxxx, ended xx/xx/xxxx.

The Race to the Top funds (RTTT) was a big umbrella of federal funds started in 2011. It was really an extension of the American Reconstruction and Recovery Act (ARRA) funds the federal government created during the recession.

There were several phases and focuses of the RTTT funds. Some of the grants were competitive, and some were non-competitive. Most of the funds were funneled through the states. In Florida, just about all districts received RTTT funds to utilize within their districts.

However, nine RTTT Hard to Measure grants were provided to several districts in an effort to create a statewide test item bank for those courses deemed to be hard to measure. Some examples would be visual arts, physical education and performing arts. The goal was to benefit the entire state by creating a bank of questions and assessment tools for these types of courses.

From 2011-2014, the Polk County School District was awarded Hard to Measure funds (Performing Arts 1, Performing Arts 2) to design test items for performing arts. These funds amounted to $2 million per year.

In 2013, Osceola County was awarded a $1.7 million Hard to Measure grant (Hard to Measure and Other Content Areas grant) to design test items for other content areas. Osceola County administered this grant to completion.

In November 2014, Heather Wright was hired for her position in Polk County.

Osceola County was in the process of applying for RTTT Hard to Measure funding called the Career and Technical Education grant. Heather Wright was accepting her new position with the Polk County School District. The Florida Department of Education amended the request for application to list Polk County as the recipient.

In December 2014, the Florida Department of Education awarded remaining RTTT Hard to Measure funds. The Polk County School District received RTTT Hard to Measure funding (Career and Technical Education) worth approximately $4.2 million. The grant was scheduled to end in June 2015. It was extended until August 2015, so those teachers writing/reviewing test items through June 30, 2015 could be approved and paid for all of their work. Any unexpended funds remained with the Florida Department of Education.

There is not a balance of funds left at the Polk County School District. This particular grant was a “Federal Cash Advance” reimbursable. This option requires online reporting of monthly expenditures to request reimbursement, so funds were reimbursed as they were expended. Therefore, there was not a balance leftover for Polk’s disposal.

Although we budgeted the entire amount of the approximately $4.2 million grant, we only received approximately $1.4 million as reimbursement for grant expenses. The expenses were primarily the stipends paid to teachers for writing and reviewing items for the test item bank, temporary staff to administer the grant, and computer equipment. All computer equipment was returned to the Florida Department of Education at the end of the grant.

The Polk County School District did request several times to extend the grant so the project could be completed. However, these requests were denied. The unspent funds stayed with the Florida Department of Education, and those funds were either returned to the federal government or used for other purposes. For information on what happened to these funds, please contact the Florida Department of Education. Here is contact information:

FLDOE phone: 850-245-0505
Todd Clark, Bureau Chief, Education Information & Accountability Services (todd.clark@fldoe.org)
Holly Edenfield, Manager, RTTT Grant (holly.edenfield@fldoe.org)

I do not see in Heather Wright’s job description — in the description for Sr. Director of Assessment, Accountability, and Evaluation — anything about “administering state DoE grant and working as state testing contractor” or something similar. What aspect of the job description covers Wright’s role as a state contractor/employee/grant admin.?

Heather Wright is not a state contractor or state employee.

She did serve as a grant administrator for RTTT Hard to Measure grant funding.
While her job description does not specifically address serving as a grant administrator, school officials can be called upon to oversee grants as a function of their role within district.

I believe Heather Wright lied to me in multiple ways.

In her original response to my travel question, she cited conferences “related to the Career/Technical Education grant that was awarded to the district.”
Apart from only providing three instances of travel — when there are dozens — she seems to have lied about the nature of the grant. As [school district records specialist] Ann Marshall wrote to me:

“This was not part of the regular Race-To-The-Top Awards received by Polk. There was a statewide need for a test bank of questions for “Hard to Assess” areas/subjects. Heather Wright was appointed by the state to administer this state grant, which was funded from ARRA/Race-To-The-Top.”

This was not a grant awarded to the district. I would like Heather Wright to resolve the inconsistencies in her original written response and what Ann provided.

Please see the response to your previous question related to the chronology of the grant. This provides a detailed description of the RTTT Hard to Measure grants and how they relate to Polk County.

I would also like to know why K-2 children are taking district-mandated EoY assessments when the state clearly says we no longer need to. That was part of HB 7069. I’ve attached a relevant document. Does it relate to Heather’s data needs for her dissertation? Or what the state test question development requires from her?

EoY assessments do not relate to Heather Wright’s dissertation or the RTTT Hard to Measure grant funding.

We are using EoY assessments because of the following:

Although HB 7069 deleted wording requiring that each elementary school regularly assess the reading ability of each K-3 student, there was new legislation during the same legislative cycle incorporated into 1008.25, F.S. requiring districts to establish a comprehensive monitoring plan for K-3 student progression with specific criteria that emphasizes student reading proficiency in K-3.

In addition, Florida Statute 1012.34(3)(a)1 requires that “… at least one-third of a performance evaluation must be based upon data and indicators of student performance in accordance with subsection (7). This portion of the evaluation must include growth or achievement data of the teacher’s students …”

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