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Senators' homework pays off in progress on reducing student assessment tests

Florida Senator Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, helped get a bill reducing standardized tests pass its first committee Monday. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

Florida Senator Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, helped get a bill reducing standardized tests pass its first committee Monday. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

TALLAHASSEE — A sweeping plan to reduce standardized testing in Florida's K-12 schools cleared its first state Senate committee on Monday, after lawmakers struck a compromise to blend competing reform proposals.

Despite political drama last week that delayed the policy discussion, senators breezed through vetting SB 926 and passed it unanimously after considering most of the amendments — all but two out of the 19 filed — in less than 15 minutes. Trilby Republican Sen. Wilton Simpson, who led the meeting, provided no time for the Education Committee to debate the changed bill or for the public to weigh in prior to the final vote.

The committee ran out of time, because nearly two dozen bills were scheduled to be heard in just two hours. (The committee won't meet next week because of the Passover holiday.)

"I know sometimes, with the public, it looks like we rushed through this and we went through a lot of things in a short amount of time," said Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, who sponsored the bill. "But this is the result of not just working together in the last week, but working together over the last several months."

Her revised proposal represents an acknowledgment by lawmakers this year of the flaws in the state's education accountability system, such as over-testing or duplicative testing that has frustrated parents and educators.

The changes approved Monday blended Flores' originally basic testing proposal with much more comprehensive — and politically more popular — reforms proposed by Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a move that last week drew the ire of a top Senate Republican who came to Montford's defense.

Although Flores and Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. had promoted their joint effort as a "Fewer, Better Tests" bill, it actually proposed nothing to reduce student assessments. It originally shifted all testing to the last three weeks of the school year and required a faster turnaround time for teachers and parents to get results.

Many of the changes approved Monday incorporate ideas first proposed in Montford's testing bill, SB 964. Those include eliminating end-of-course exams in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics; allowing school districts to use paper-and-pencil exams instead of computerized tests; and, repealing a controversial formula to evaluate teachers based on their students' year-over-year growth on exams.

"Sometimes this is the way government has to work; you compromise to make things better," Montford told the Times/Herald. "We must, this session, pass a bill that will give students and teachers relief...This is not a retreat from accountability at all; as a matter of fact, I believe this is the strengthening of a good state assessment program."

Montford's bill wanted to let students use the SAT or ACT in lieu of the Florida Standards Assessments, but senators on the Education Committee want an independent study first to see if that's feasible and would align with Florida Standards, the state's version of Common Core.

Another change to Flores' measure would let students who pass certain exams — such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests — to be exempt from the statewide assessments in those areas, beginning next school year.

"Essentially what we're trying to do with this legislation — at least when it started out — was to reduce the amount of testing that we have in Florida schools," Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said. "One of the best ways and easiest ways to do that is to leverage other tests that are trusted by parents and educators, are nationally recognized and that our students are already having to take in the course of their education."

"To the extent that we can utilize those tests, there's a chance that we can avoid students taking duplicative tests," he added, noting that some of those tests are "accepted and trusted by our parents much more than the FSA."

Students will still need to take one statewide math assessment in high school for either Algebra I, Geometry, or Algebra II because it's required under federal law.

Lee, a former Senate president, last week harshly accused his party leaders of "stealing" elements of Montford's bill so that Republicans might claim credit for the testing reforms. He called the maneuver — which included several last-minute amendments — "an abomination" of the legislative process. This week, Lee was part of the unanimous vote to support Flores' amended legislation. She said she had worked with several senators, such as Lee and Montford, to strike the compromise.

"Even though we got off to a rocky start last week — maybe that was necessary — now I believe we've got a bill that will be really good for children and for teachers," Montford said.

Other small changes to Flores' bill had nothing to do with testing — such as affording school board members more freedom to visit schools in their district — which indicates this bill could continue to expand into a more general education policy bill as the session continues.

Flores' revised legislation faces only one more committee stop — the Rules Committee — before it could reach the Senate floor.

The main advocate for Flores' original bill was the Foundation for Florida's Future — an education advocacy group founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush that helped write her bill. Under Bush's leadership, Florida took a more aggressive approach to standardized testing and education accountability, such as by linking student assessment scores to school grades and funding.

"For a variety of different reasons, some testing policies did get out of hand," Flores said. "Today versus 10 years ago, that's a very different time."

In the House, lawmakers have largely stuck to the baby steps Flores' bill initially called for, while the companion to Montford's bill has stalled.

The House version of Flores' initial measure — HB 773 from Diaz — has only one more hearing before it could reach the House floor. Just small changes have been made to Diaz's bill so far; for instance, it now includes a $1.6 million appropriation to pay for implementing the bill in 2017-18, of which $340,000 would be one-time funding.

Much like in the Senate, Diaz has said lawmakers should not be so quick to OK the use of alternative assessments before the Florida Department of Education has had a chance to vet whether those different tests are actually comparable to the FSA. Diaz said an analysis first, as his bill also calls for, would ensure "we have the data to make an educated decision, instead of continuing to talk about something that ... may or may not work."

"There has been some talk across the hall in the Senate of the elimination of tests. I believe strongly we should not go in there and just start plucking away at tests that have been put in place. We need to close the [testing] window first," Diaz said last week when his bill passed the House Pre-K-12 budget committee that he chairs. "Every time we go tinker with testing or the accountability system, there's always an unintended consequence. So I think this gives us the ability to have that information in hand before we start making those decisions."

Of concern to some parent advocates, Diaz's bill still includes controversial language that the Senate removed from Flores' measure — which would define a "level 3" result on the statewide English/language arts and mathematics assessments as "proficient," rather than only "passing," starting next school year. Testing critics say that language will make it harder for students to pass the exams.

The revised Senate bill calls for a study into the issue, but the definition of "proficient" as it relates to Florida's assessments was already the subject of lengthy debate by the state Board of Education more than a year ago. "Proficient" is currently considered a "level 4" grade on the FSA.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at kclark@miamherald.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark

Senators' homework pays off in progress on reducing student assessment tests 04/03/17 [Last modified: Monday, April 3, 2017 8:02pm]
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