Calls to suspend state-mandated testing intensify as more school districts weigh in

More districts join forces to stop Florida's mandated exams.

Published September 23 2014
Updated September 24 2014

Six weeks into the school year, educators and parents across Florida again are sounding alarms about the state's ability to conduct reliable and fair testing in the spring.

Twelve school districts, representing about half the state's public school enrollment, are preparing to take their concerns to state officials. Among their worries:

• New tests, including the Florida Standards Assessments, or FSA, and thousands of local end-of-course exams, are being launched without proper validation.

• School districts lack adequate technology to implement online testing.

• Teachers have not received enough training or time to guide students toward the new form of testing, which differs dramatically from the old.

"Our kids, their future, is at risk if we do things poorly," said Pinellas School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook, who has supported a call, with a consortium of 10 other school boards, to put off high-stakes testing until 2017.

"Let's do it right," she said. "That's all we are asking."

School boards, parent groups and district leaders, not to mention Common Core opponents and testing critics, are keeping things churned up with resolutions, white papers and demands that state leaders rein in Florida's accountability system for one to three years. These groups have taken similar stances the last few years, but their calls have taken on more urgency as the testing season draws near.

Last Friday, the Greater Florida Consortium of School Boards, which includes Pinellas, called for a three-year suspension of high-stakes testing. In two weeks, the Duval County School Board will vote on a resolution formally objecting to the state using the new tests for school grades.

Last month, the Lee County School Board temporarily considered opting out of state testing, eventually pushing to join the consortium's cause instead.

A group called Opt-Out Brevard has suggested the Department of Education establish a way for parents to choose not to participate in state testing. And the Florida PTA has urged the state to reconsider its adherence to the existing system.

Some of the state's most respected superintendents also have pressed for a more measured approach.

The state should allow time to fully vet the new tests and make sure they are aligned with the new standards, Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said. She plans to voice her concerns Monday to the state Board of Education in Tampa.

Key lawmakers say they have heard the requests for a delay, but don't share all the concerns. They noted the Legislature tempered penalties during the year of transition. They also argue the accountability program must not be interrupted.

"Districts will still receive all of the benefits from our accountability system, including financial assistance for low-performing schools and low-performing students," incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said in an email. "In order to help overcome questions on validity and comparison, we will use this year's results as the baseline."

That approach has not satisfied some testing supporters, such as Duval superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who once oversaw the state's school improvement system.

Like Elia, Vitti argues the state has not allowed time to ensure its new tests are consistent with its new academic standards, or are dependable enough to make comparisons and decisions about performance. The same holds true for the many local tests that districts are scrambling to create for teacher evaluations, he said.

In that light, he contends it makes little sense to grade schools, rate teachers or hold back third-graders right now.

"It's just not reasonable, and I think it's immoral," Vitti said. "I support accountability, but if we don't do it in a fair, balanced and reliable way, we're going to erode what little faith remains in the accountability system."

State Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said some of the concerns are credible, key among them whether schools can be ready logistically. That's why lawmakers chose to hold schools harmless for a year, he said, and passed a bill requiring that all schools handle the technological load before Florida moves to new tests.

Still, Legg rejected the idea of going any further. The state should have an objective measure to determine, "Are we as great as we say we are?" he said.

The goal of having fewer, better tests has merit, Legg added. But the notion of ending testing, even for a short period, won't fly with him or others.

Cook said her goal isn't to end testing, but to make sure changes are done well.

Added Vitti: "The question isn't the what. It's the how. And that's what Florida continues to get wrong."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614.

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