1. Education

Pasco County elementary students to get fewer tests this year

Pasco County public school students will see fewer tests, with elementary children the first to benefit.

Gone this year are all elementary district finals in math, science and social studies. Only children in kindergarten, first and second grades will sit for a language arts assessment from the district.

Most grade levels will no longer have to take physical education, art or music course finals, as well. Those will be offered only in third grade for P.E., fourth for art and fifth for music.

Because the bulk of the district finals were used primarily to evaluate teachers, rather than improve instruction, they have been scaled back to a more manageable number, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

A group of district educators recommended the changes to superintendent Kurt Browning, who called for a review after receiving complaints about too much testing from teachers and parents.

The committee concluded that students' language arts scores could suffice for every teacher, as the required skills are present in every subject area. The older students' state exam results could be used for their teachers, eliminating the need for a district final as well.

Teachers in the "special" areas of P.E., art and music will get scores from a sampling of their students, rather than have all take a test.

Students will continue to complete "quarterly checks" in the humanities, math and science, which district officials have said help teachers gauge how everyone is progressing toward meeting standards and adjust lessons accordingly.

A similar review is in progress for middle and high school tests. Browning told the School Board via email that changes would come to the secondary level in 2020.

He has said frequently that his goal is to find ways to get the needed data with as little stress as possible.

STUDENT GRADES: Shortly before teachers left for summer break, the Pasco County School District rolled out new rules for grading middle and high school students' work.

The two-sided page offered a list of required practices, such as not having homework scores count as a "significant" portion of a course grade, and disallowed practices, such as awarding extra points for meeting deadlines.

Some teachers and School Board members raised concerns over the content, suggesting more flexibility might be needed in certain areas.

But even before tackling such issues, the United School Employees of Pasco had a more basic problem.

"It was never brought to the board as policy to be adopted, nor was it negotiated ... as a change to working conditions," USEP president Don Peace said.

He raised the subject with senior administrative staff, hoping to get the matter resolved before students return for classes. It's important, Peace said, to begin the year with a set of agreed upon grading standards that students and parents can depend upon.

With just days to go before the first day of school, the sides landed on a plan.

The administration and union set a deal that the principles and practices will be "recommended, not required," employee relations director Kathy Scalise said.

Peace said that makes a big difference from the "required and disallowed" that had been presented, because it won't count against teachers who might not have been trained or fully informed on the different approach. He acknowledged some changes might come in the future.

"We will continue to work on this," Peace said.

CHARTER WOES: Pasco County School District officials are not officially worried about the status of Plato Academy in Trinity. Yet.

But they want more information about the school's rent payments from the past several months.

The charter school, which opened a year ago amid troubles of completing construction on time, has received notice that it has defaulted on its lease agreement with property owner Superior Schools — the group that used to manage Plato's several campuses around the Tampa Bay area. According to the document, Plato had not paid Superior $325,854 from December 2018 through July 2019.

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning reminded Plato leaders in a recent letter that the charter's contract includes language requiring that it maintain sufficient funds to pay all costs associated with operating the school, including rent.

"As you know, the School Board has an interest in the facilities which are utilized for Pasco County students," Browning wrote.

He asked the charter operator to submit detailed financial information regarding lease payments, as well as any other "relevant information regarding your access to facilities."

No warnings were attached. So far, the district simply wants an update on the lease dispute between landlord and tenant, board attorney Dennis Alfonso said.

The district was still waiting for a response.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.