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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Senate panel grills state education commissioner



When Pam Stewart became state education commissioner in September, lawmakers gave her time to untangle the complicated and controversial issues facing the education department.

But that unspoken grace period came to an end Wednesday, when members of the Senate Education Committee grilled Stewart on the future of Florida's public schools.

Lawmakers expressed doubt that the education department would be able to tweak the new education standards and roll out a new statewide assessment by the 2014-15 school year, as Stewart has promised.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, raised concerns that the companies competing to develop the test might protest the competitive bidding process, delaying an already tight timeline.

“God forbid we do get a protest, what is the timetable to go through that protest, and could we still get the exam in place [on time]?” Legg asked.

Stewart said the education department had done “everything possible” to avoid a bid protest.

But the questions didn’t end there. Echoing concerns from parent groups, Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, asked why the department had opted against field testing the new assessments in select school districts before deploying them statewide.

Stewart said field testing was not necessary because it would only benefit the testing company.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, had separate questions about technology. He feared some school districts would not have the computers and bandwidth required for the tests –- and called on education officials to slow down the roll-out.

“What exactly is the rush?” he asked.

Stewart held firm.

“We know that we have to have an assessment in 2014-15 that is aligned to what students are being taught,” she said.

The next 18 months are critical for the state education department. In addition to deploying the standards and exams, Florida is launching a new system for evaluating and compensating teachers based on student achievement data.

Said Legg: “I find it hard to believe the districts are anywhere close to being ready.” 

What’s more, policy experts and parents have questioned the credibility of Florida’s complicated school grading system, and called on the education department to simplify the formula.

Stewart said the department plans to develop a revised formula with fewer components. She added that she would also consider releasing all school grades in the summer. High school grades are currently released in the winter.

School grades are used to reward high-performing schools. Schools that earn low grades are at risk of staff turnover or closure.

[Last modified: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 3:32pm]


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