Florida lawmaker files bill to clarify third-grade retention rules
A Florida lawmaker has filed legislation aiming to clarify the state's rules on whether a third grader has earned promotion to fourth grade — a topic that proved confusing and controversial during 2016.
HB 131, which so far has no Senate companion, would require a third grader to pass the Florida Standards Assessment in language arts or meet one of seven good cause exemptions outlined in law. The bill would still allow for students to be held back because of demonstrated reading deficiencies, and would retain requirements to provide those children extra help and a path to midyear promotion.
In many ways, this bill seeks to codify the way that school officials across Florida thought they understood the state's Jeb Bush-era retention law was supposed to work. But as the testing opt-out movement grew in 2015 and 2016, officials said they got direction from the Department of Education that students needed a test score before they could qualify for any good cause exemption. Some districts held to that requirement, while others didn't.
It wasn't until late May 2016 that a department spokeswoman stated publicly that the DOE had "no hierarchy" of exemptions to retention for students without a passing FSA score. Even after that statement, some districts remained steadfast in their insistence that a child have a score, and in August parents from seven counties sued the DOE and their districts over the application of this law.
A Leon County judge sided with the parents, and the case is now pending an appeal. Some of the defendant districts have since changed their policies.
In the aftermath of this debate, several state education leaders suggested a statutory change was critical. The Florida School Boards Association made the issue a centerpiece of its 2017 legislative platform.
So far, the only lawmaker to take up the issue as committee weeks approach is Rep. John Cortes, a Democrat from Osceola County. Cortes, a retired corrections officer, does not sit on any education-related committees, making his bill a longshot unless it picks up some significant support. Still, the League of Women Voters Florida education blog deems the bill "worth watching" to see if it progresses.
The only other bill filed so far relating to third-grade reading performance focuses on improving instruction, a revisit of legislation that failed in 2016.