School testing poised to get scaled back by Florida lawmakers

Scaled-back testing needs specifics to go with its popularity.
Published December 7 2014
Updated December 7 2014

When the Lee County School Board voted in August to rid its classrooms of state-mandated tests, superintendent Nancy Graham says the district lost sight of a key factor: Children.

Adults with political agendas on testing, accountability, Common Core and other issues held sway with passionate pleas, and board members took the bait.

The conversation about the impact of testing on students' school lives got lost in the mix.

"Lee County got caught up in the circus," Graham said last week during a presentation to board members from around Florida. "But now we're back on track."

The message is resonating in Tallahassee among lawmakers, the same group that spent the past 15 years gradually building the state's testing system into what it is today. Now, many of them are looking to pare the system down after a chorus of complaints by local educators in recent months.

"It is one of the most challenging questions we will address this session," Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg said.

Legg, who founded Pasco County's first charter school, said he heard complaints among his staff about how pulling children out of class two or more times weekly for testing gets in the way of teaching and learning.

The goals of keeping track of student performance and holding educators responsible for the education of all children were well-intended, Legg said. But over time, as the state added exams such as science and writing to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and made more demands in school grading, he said, one question got waylaid: How is it affecting the students?

"It's important to have accountability," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, an influential Pinellas County lawmaker who voted for the original A-Plus plan in 1999. "But like a lot of things, the Legislature tends to exaggerate and keep tweaking things, and we end up with things that aren't so good."

The push is not to make testing go away completely.

"Assessment is not bad," Graham said, explaining that results can be used to improve instruction. But "no one was really watching the culmination of what was happening."

So a retrenching is in order. And lawmakers hold most of the cards, she suggested.

Already they have some ideas about where the session might head. On the House side, the talk centers on logistics.

Currently, students sit for end-of-course exams as much as a month before the class is over, interrupting the flow of instruction. And once done, "they sort of tune out," said Rep. Erik Fresen of Miami, chairman of the House Education Appropriations subcommittee.

He said he is working on a bill to push back testing dates "so that 'end-of-course' actually means end of course."

"We need to look at the window of testing so the instruction ends and then you begin testing," said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, a college dean who sat on several education committees last session.

Fresen also talked about changing the law to allow school employees other than certified teachers to proctor state exams. That way, teachers are not pulled from instruction. "How we administer testing needs to evolve," he said.

The representatives did not anticipate tackling the much-repeated request for a longer transition period to new tests and standards without consequences. Many have criticized the state's plan to suspend the penalties and rewards associated with school grades for a year, pushing instead for a hiatus of up to three years. Their fear is that students will tank on the new Florida Standards Assessment.

"People are out there giving a eulogy on something that hasn't happened yet," Diaz said. "Let's see what happens first."

Senate leaders hedged their bets on the transition issue, as well. Instead, they indicated they might pressure the Florida Department of Education to use its existing power to allow districts to use single exams for multiple purposes.

That way, students would not have to take so many tests and state officials would still have the data to hold schools accountable.

Senate Education Appropriations chairman Don Gaetz asked education commissioner Pam Stewart for details , no later than Dec. 30, on how the department is approaching these requirements.

"That's a thoughtful discussion about how do we implement assessments," Legg said. "The appetite for us is not to do away with assessments. How do we manage them is going to be the direction of the discussion."

A department spokeswoman said the commissioner is working to respond to Gaetz. Stewart told superintendents last week, though, that her department has done all it can to deal with testing.

To some, that indicated that they need to reach out to Gov. Rick Scott, who has called for a state review of all tests, including state and district requirements.

Many in Tallahassee have suggested that school districts — not the state — are responsible for over-testing students.

To force a scaling back, Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, has filed a bill that would limit district- and state-mandated testing to 10 days.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, has said he is drafting a bill that would take up some of the many demands that school boards and superintendents have been making to reduce testing and associated penalties.

District leaders are trying to remain realistic.

Last week, during their annual meeting in Tampa, board members talked about fighting for small issues as a united front — even as they adopted a broad resolution against high-stakes testing.

"We all do this together and we can win a battle," Orange County board member Christine Moore said, "and hopefully we can win the war."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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