Romano: Whoa, did Florida just take a turn toward sanity on education?

Published January 12 2017
Updated January 12 2017

The following is a brief, and rare, burst of exuberance. It is probably naive and, based on the history of political foolishness in this state, is almost certainly premature.

Yet here it goes:

Hallelujah!

Something happened in Tallahassee on Wednesday that was sensible, constructive and a little bit courageous. In other words, something completely out of the ordinary.

A panel of school superintendents spoke their minds, in some cases forcefully, about Florida's glut of standardized tests. Even more remarkably, senators seemed to listen.

"We've hit the grand slam. We have superintendents, teachers, students and parents who are very, very frustrated," said Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola. "I'm concerned, after all these years of testing, what kind of product are we delivering to our colleges and universities."

To answer the senator's question: not very impressive.

The state will engage in Cirque du Soleil-style manipulations to make it appear results have climbed high, but the truth is Florida still lags behind on college-bound tests.

Now it's important, when comparing scores on the SAT and ACT, to stipulate the percentage of students taking the test because scores typically go down when more students are involved.

Florida, for instance, is one of 10 states to have between 70 and 80 percent of students take the SAT. And how did Florida rank against its peers? It finished ninth out of 10. The ACT results are similar.

The point is that Florida's obsession with accountability has done more to enrich testing companies than to enlighten children's minds.

There were times during Wednesday's committee meeting when the discussion got too deep into the weeds about costs and schedules and end-of-course exams, but Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning finally cut through the nonsense to concisely explain what has gone wrong.

The problem isn't the tests; it's the power the Legislature has bestowed on the tests. By tying student promotions, teacher evaluations and school funding to test scores, the tail now wags the dog.

We've created a system where the school year revolves around the Florida Standards Assessment, and creativity and critical thinking have suffered accordingly. Making matters even worse, we've allowed testing companies to operate in complete secrecy, which flies in the face of our zest for accountability.

"(It's) the whole idea of the high stakes-ness, if you will, of the FSA," Browning said. "Parents are frustrated because so much is driven, not solely but in large part, by one (test)."

Now I shouldn't get too giddy because the Senate has always been the more sensible relation compared to the Florida House's crazy uncle shenanigans, but there was one moment that offers true hope.

A representative of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future offered a rambling mélange of talking points before Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, asked a question about the foundation's intractable stance on testing. When the answer alluded to state requirements, Lee pounced.

"We are here because your organization has locked this Legislature down," Lee said. "You can't get a bill out of this Legislature that isn't supported by the foundation."

It's a big day when a senator of Lee's stature calls bull on a Bush disciple. After years of blind devotion to the idea that standardized tests are holy, it was a moment to savor.

Hallelujah, indeed.

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