Schools bill goes to governor: Cuts tests, allows earlier school year


Florida public school students would face fewer standardized tests next year under legislation approved Thursday by the state House and sent to Gov. Rick Scott.

The measure would cap at 5 percent the share of student time that would be devoted to testing and eliminate some 11th grade tests. Also gone: district-required end-of-course exams in subjects not covered by state assessments.

After widespread log-in problems marred the state’s most recent round of testing, the legislation (HB 7069) also would put on hold the use of student test data for school grades, teacher evaluations and for promoting kids to fourth grade until the new Florida Standards Assessments are reviewed and validated by an independent company.

The state had planned all along to withhold consequences to districts and schools that would’ve come with poor test scores, but this would also temporarily remove the high-stakes the tests pack in third grade where they are key to promotion and in high school where they’re required for graduation.

House Education Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, said the move is a step in the right direction.

But she also downplayed the scope of the problems affecting this spring’s language and writing tests, which led to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement probe into the possibility of cyber-attack. O’Toole said that only 320 students statewide were unable to complete these assessments — out of 1.4 million tested.

“The epidemic you hear about — how they all failed — is not true,” O’Toole said.

“We have more out with the flu on an average day,” she said.

Still thousands of students saw their testing schedules disrupted because of the technical challenges that pulled the plug on lessons across the state.

Vern Pickup-Crawford, lobbyist for the Palm Beach County School Board, also noted of the 5 percent cap: “I’m going to say that’s really not going to have that much effect. We don’t know of any county where a students spends more than 5 percent of their time on testing.”

House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach said he was not satisfied with the changes. He questioned the reliability of the proposed testing review.

“It’s very important that we do this the right way,” Pafford said.

Democrats in the House and Senate have pushed unsuccessfully to impose a one-year moratorium on using this year’s test results to grade schools and evaluate teachers, urging these findings instead be used only to establish a baseline to gauge future progress.

But Republican lawmakers Thursday again defended the Florida Standards Assessments and their use to maintain school and teacher accountability.

“If you don’t measure, you don’t care,” said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami.

In a step long-sought by many educators, the bill would reduce the amount of weight given student performance as part of teacher evaluations. And it would give districts the option to move the starting date for next school year to Aug. 10, a week earlier than when Palm Beach and many counties began the current term.

The proposed date change has drawn resistance from Florida’s tourism industry, which has fought similar efforts in previous years.

The measure cleared the House 105-6, a week after the same bill was OK’d by the Senate, 32-4.

“The bill that the House passed today takes some steps to easing some of the many negative consequences that parents and teachers see coming from this drastic increase in testing,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

But like many Democratic lawmakers, Ford said more changes are needed.

“We’ll be looking at how the rest of the testing season goes and talking with teachers and parents about their experiences this year,” Ford said.

Scott is expected to sign the bill into law. This year he suspended 11th grade state assessments for English and language arts, which would be permanently erased with the legislation.

Approving the bill last week, several senators lashed out at Florida’s deepening reliance on standardized tests.

“I’m done with the testing program in the state of Florida,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, a former Senate president who is now the chamber’s budget chief.

Standardized testing first took on added importance under Jeb Bush, who used it to reward or punish schools when he was governor. And the Florida Standards Assessments, the state’s version of the nationwide Common Core Standards, has spawned more testing.

Facing a rising outcry from district administrators, parents and kids about the proliferation of testing, Scott and fellow Republican leaders in the Legislature tried to straddle the divide over Common Core. Backed by Bush, President Obama and most in the education establishment, those standards are condemned on the political right as federal government overreach and on the left as teaching to the test.

But with Bush now advancing a likely White House run, many Democrats and school administrators have said Republicans would not enact deeper changes that could threaten his legacy.

“The bill is a significant step in reducing use of a single test to determine a child’s or teacher’s future, and to make sure teachers, parents and students get results on a timely basis,” Pickup-Crawford said. “We’d hope, however, (legislators) and Gov. Scott will continue to hear our stakeholders so we can get to a rational, reliable system that helps and not unfairly penalizes our students.”

Staff writer Sonja Isger contributed to this story.



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