It has been 18 years since Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature transformed public education by creating a system that led to an obsession with high-stakes standardized tests, school letter grades and teacher evaluations tied to student performance. Now the pendulum finally may be swinging in the other direction, as Republican lawmakers are pledging a thorough review aimed at reducing the number of tests and the time spent preparing for them. That's good news for frustrated parents, students and teachers.
A recent Senate education committee meeting reflected a renewed commitment among key legislators to address the complaints about overtesting that have festered for years. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, acknowledged that "maybe we've taken a good thing too far and now it is time to bring some common sense to it.'' Lawmakers, county school superintendents and parents appear headed in the same general direction. Even Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, which still casts a long shadow over the state Capitol and education policy, supports reducing the amount of time spent on tests.
It's about time. Long after Bush left the Governor's Mansion, the Legislature kept raising the stakes on standardized testing as the years passed. Even as the state implemented new assessments tied to the Common Core-aligned Florida Standards two years ago, it refused to slow down and listen to warnings from superintendents, principals and teachers. The bumpy debut of the new Florida Standards Assessments in 2015 and the uproar over how they were developed fueled further discontent among parents and school officials. The technical problems eased last year, but the complaints about testing have not.
Previous attempts to address overtesting have produced modest results. Legislators set a limit on hours devoted to state-required tests, but the limit is too high. They eliminated one 11th-grade language arts test and a requirement for local end-of-course exams aimed at evaluating teachers. But there are still too many tests and too much riding on the results.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood, who chairs the education appropriations subcommittee, says he is looking for solutions. He wants to eliminate some tests and reduce the time spent on testing. He also recognizes the time drain extends far beyond the actual testing days to include test preparation and taking practice tests to prepare for the real thing. With a broad consensus among legislators, educators and families that some balance has to be restored to the classroom, this could be the spring that brings meaningful change.
The devil will be in the details, of course. One suggestion by superintendents is to eliminate state end-of-course exams in algebra II, geometry, civics and U.S. history. Another suggestion promoted by Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego is to return to testing on paper. Testing on computers overburdens many schools that are not well-equipped with technology, lengthens testing periods and forces testing sites such as libraries to be closed for weeks. A better answer would be for the state to spend more on technology, but there should be room for reasonable compromise.
No one is arguing Florida should abandon accountability in public education. Student performance should be measured, and there should remain a common set of standards and tests so that results can be compared throughout Florida and the nation. But for years, this state has forced its students to spend less time learning and more time preparing for tests, practicing tests and taking tests. There also is a consensus that too much weight has been put on particular test results to place simplistic letter grades on schools, evaluate teacher performance and determine in one snapshot whether a student is successful.
It's time to reduce the tests, reduce the stakes and restore some balance.