Editorial: New student testing law should have gone further

Published April 14 2015

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Tuesday a modest reduction in student testing, but the changes are by no means perfect and do not adequately address the stubborn march to proceed with suspect standardized tests that have had a bumpy debut. The new law at least confirms that the governor and state lawmakers are hearing the frustrations of parents, teachers and school administrators. The inclusion of an independent review of the new Florida Standards assessments should offer some protection for students, teachers and schools if the tests turn out to be flawed.

The law requires that no more than 5 percent of a student's total school hours in a year be spent on statewide and mandatory district assessments. It also removes a requirement that local school districts give exams in subjects not covered by state tests. And if a statewide, standardized test exists for a course, that assessment must be used as the final exam for its associated course.

It is disappointing that the law still allows school grades to be issued for the 2014-15 school year. Critics of that plan, including superintendents throughout Florida, had argued that all school grades should be suspended for this school year as districts around the state implemented the new assessments. The law wisely establishes that an independent entity will verify the validity of the tests before school grades can be published or student performance data may be used in evaluating teachers and school administrators. A statewide panel must select that independent evaluator by June 1, and verification of tests must be completed by Sept. 1.

Teachers should be encouraged by the reduction in weight that test scores carry in teacher evaluations. The scores will make up one-third of teacher evaluations, down from 50 percent. This smart move puts Florida in line with best practices around the country.

On the whole, the new law represents a good-faith effort by lawmakers who realize students are tested far beyond what is required to determine their mastery of a subject area. But it remains unfair to hold schools, teachers and, most importantly, students accountable for their performance this year on hastily compiled, adopted and implemented statewide exams whose spring rollout was rife with problems. It would have required more courage for lawmakers to include the independent review of the tests and suspend school grades for this school year. As it stands, the law is unclear about what happens if independent reviewers find fault with the tests.

Scott had no choice but to sign the changes into law, because they are better than the status quo. But legislators should be prepared to make adjustments to the accountability components based upon the results of the independent evaluation, feedback from students, parents and teachers and the common sense gleaned from observing implementation issues during the testing season.

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