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Florida canceled student exams this spring. Is testing on its way out?

The absence of spring tests due to the coronavirus has prompted some to wonder if Florida could do without them.

Early in May, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran told school districts they wouldn’t have to make up five days of teaching missed while educators prepared for distance learning.

The decision, he later told the State Board of Education, was fairly easy to make.

“We had already canceled the state testing for spring 2020,” Corcoran said. That allowed more time for teaching and learning, so no classroom time was lost, he explained.

Those who question Florida’s test-heavy accountability system seized on Corcoran’s words. Some suggested it should jump-start a conversation about the state’s future use of testing.

Cindy Hamilton, a co-founder of Opt Out Florida, a group that opposes high-stakes testing, said state officials were quick to dump the assessments because they knew they could do without.

“They already knew it was asking too much," she said. "Why is it not too much to ask each year?”

Related: Florida scraps K-12 testing, students to stay home through April 15, DeSantis says

Hamilton and other advocates want Florida to reduce the use of annual exams to evaluate teachers, rate schools, award extra funding and, in some cases, hold students back. They argue that this approach, developed while Jeb Bush was governor and then spread to other states, punishes students and educators rather than providing useful information to guide instruction.

Its influence over how classrooms operate has been outsized, they contend, prompting teachers to focus on preparations for what is tested and driving out lessons that aren’t. The net result, they say, has not been an elimination of achievement gaps as promised.

Many officials fear that distance learning will cause those gaps to widen further. Corcoran has identified reducing those disparities as his department’s top academic priority for the fall and beyond.

“You need a different approach,” said Bob Schaeffer, the Florida-based interim executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which also supports a move from high-stakes assessments. “Florida is test crazy. I think the virus is forcing some rethinking of what has been given over the past few decades.”

Jane Goodwin, incoming president of the Florida School Boards Association, said the pandemic has shown the value in giving teachers more responsibility for knowing their students and that should continue.

“I’m hoping there will be fewer tests,” said Goodwin, a member of the Sarasota County School Board.

The push back against state exams has yielded results in recent years, as the most ardent supporters have sponsored legislation to decrease the number. The most recent proposal, which failed, would have eliminated the geometry end-of-course exam and the ninth grade language arts test.

But don’t mistake that for a full retreat.

As he called off state testing this spring, Corcoran made clear his commitment to reviving the assessments. Without those results, he said, the state would not be able to compare how students and schools meet academic expectations.

It would be much easier, then, for schools in poverty to fall through the cracks, he suggested. The testing, Corcoran said, highlights areas needing more support and help.

That’s an important factor to consider, testing proponents say, particularly as children return after weeks away from in-person learning with what many have coined the “COVID-19 slide.”

Related: Florida students will suffer learning losses this spring, educators say

“I just don’t understand the concept of saying, ‘Let’s have a data vacation,’ as if data has not been important,” said Chris Stewart, CEO of Education Post, a nonprofit that favors school accountability.

Stewart who recently wrote a column titled “One thing way worse than standardized testing is unstandardized testing," noted that schools will have to know what material students need to revisit as they return in the fall. That will require testing.

People should not be alarmed by that, he said. After all, schools use “unstandardized” tests made by teachers all the time, to help set their lessons.

That does not alleviate the need for students taking the same test in a standard environment, so officials can review how schools are meeting statewide goals, he said. Rather, it suggests that all parties might want to look at the central questions of what testing is and what it’s for.

It’s possible, Stewart said, that testing might become more ingrained in daily or weekly materials, so teachers and parents can monitor children’s progress more consistently.

That idea sent shivers through Hamilton, the Opt Out Florida leader. She criticized “data-collecting monsters” trying to embed tests as a way to undermine teachers.

“I think what’s going to happen is there is going to be a huge push for online education like we’ve never seen before,” she said. “Once that is fully installed, these little pesky pandemics won’t be an issue. ... It’s going to be data collection 24/7.”

Florida Virtual School recently expanded its capacity to serve more than 2 million children, sparking such concerns.

Hamilton rejected the notion that you have to assess to show you care, to paraphrase former governor Bush. She called that concept “sick, ridiculous rhetoric.”

“Teachers should be trusted,” Hamilton said.

Schaeffer concurred, adding that tests aren’t needed to know where the worst and best outcomes will be.

Stewart countered that it’s “cancerous” to assume what a school’s test results will be based on its ZIP code. Doing so ignores high achievers in poor communities and stragglers in more affluent ones, he said, and can unfairly change the way teachers approach their classes.

The conversation should center on how tests are used, not whether they have value, Stewart said.

University of North Carolina education professor Gregory Cizek, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, said policy makers need to justify that the information gathered from tests is properly used.

He pushed back, though, against the idea that testing is meaningless. Few decision makers will be willing to give up programs designed to show whether schools are meeting standards and students are achieving, Cizek predicted.

“The odd thing is we’re even having this conversation,” he said.

He suggested that, if Florida and other states resumed testing next school year, some important data could emerge to help everyone understand whether distance learning helped or hurt achievement.

“I’m not willing at all to say education has gone on as normal and we didn’t have testing, so we can live without it,” Cizek said.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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