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Will Florida cancel school tests again in 2021?

Students didn't have to take them this past spring, raising hopes among some that the exams might be on their way out.

With concerns growing over COVID-19, Florida canceled its annual student exams in March, in part so teachers could focus on lessons rather than test preparation as they moved to remote classes.

The quick action gave hope to critics of the state’s test-based accountability system that perhaps the model was on its last legs.

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

Across the nation, speculation swirled that it was the “beginning of the end” of the “high-stakes testing mania” that Florida had led for so many years.

So when district officials from across the state had the Florida Department of Education’s chief of staff on a webinar this week, with school reopening the topic, it came as no surprise that the issue arose again. Several participants wanted to know, is Florida planning to seek another waiver of federal annual testing requirements?

The answer likely won’t surprise, either.

“No, we are not,” department chief of staff Alex Kelly told the group. “We’re not planning on submitting that.”

That posture did not deviate from commissioner Richard Corcoran’s statements in early March that testing would resume in more usual times. Some observers have questioned, though, whether Florida is on its way to more usual times.

They have noted that districts are still debating the relative merits of in-person vs. distance learning, with some south Florida leaders say they don’t plan to reopen schools in August as they would when not faced with an ongoing pandemic. Standardized tests, it would seem, would be far from standard, with their results perhaps less than helpful.

But at the state level, the message remains that the tests matter — possibly now more than ever.

Having student performance data is critical, Kelly said, so the state, districts, schools and teachers can see whether students experienced learning losses as predicted, and if they overcame those. After a lengthy period of schooling that looked very different than the usual model, he said, it’s important to see how the students are doing, and what exactly happened.

That’s the reason why, in addition to returning to spring testing, the state is insisting on progress monitoring as part of districts’ reopening plans — particularly for those that intend to implement “innovative” approaches to instruction.

“It’s important to have diagnostic assessments,” he said, to help identify students who are struggling and then direct supports their way.

Kelly did, however, distinguish between getting results and implementing them. Florida has faced many criticisms because it has used the outcomes to grade schools, evaluate teachers, award raises and bonuses, and take other actions that the tests weren’t necessarily designed to affect.

“There will be questions of how the data is used,” he said, adding that the state will take a look into that aspect.

This year, the state waived its accountability system at the same time it canceled testing. The governor later vetoed $135 million that was to go toward recognition awards for schools that met performance goals.

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