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Remove consequences from student test results, key Florida lawmaker says

A bill addressing the issue will be heard in the Senate Education Committee during the first week of the legislative session.
Senate Education chairman Joe Gruters holds a Zoom conference call on Wednesday with school board members from Pasco, Hernando and three other counties.
Senate Education chairman Joe Gruters holds a Zoom conference call on Wednesday with school board members from Pasco, Hernando and three other counties. [ Zoom ]
Published Feb. 24
Updated Feb. 24

Students, teachers and schools should not have to suffer the consequences that usually accompany Florida’s annual accountability tests as they complete this pandemic-fueled year.

That was the clear message Wednesday from Senate Education Committee chairman Joe Gruters, speaking during a teleconference with school board members and superintendents from five counties, including Pasco and Hernando.

This year’s test results should serve only as “a barometer” of how students are doing, said Gruters, who also heads the state’s Republican Party.

He said he will schedule a bill (SB 886) filed by Sen. Perry Thurston, a Broward County Democrat, to be heard in the committee’s first meeting after the legislative session opens on Tuesday. During pre-session committee weeks, Gruters said he wanted to at least have a discussion about the issues.

“This has been discussed quite a bit,” he told the board members. “I very much support that (bill).”

Related: Florida schools will resume state testing, in person. Some say no way.

Gruters’ statements came just days after officials in the Biden administration sent a letter to state education officers, stating the federal government would not offer waivers for its annual testing requirements this year. The Trump administration allowed states to cancel last spring, as the pandemic took hold.

However, Biden’s team said they would consider waivers for the way states use the results.

“State assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity,” wrote Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “At the same time, it is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing; keep students, staff, and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development.”

School boards and other education groups across Florida have urged Gov. Ron DeSantis and education commissioner Richard Corcoran to do away this year with many of the accountability measures usually tied to test scores. Among those measures are using scores to help determine whether a child can move on from third grade or whether a high school student can graduate. The bill, if passed, would set those and other measures aside for another year.

Pasco County School Board members are among those supporting this approach. They asked their district staff to pen a resolution calling for another year without consequences, and had their lobbyists begin talking about the topic with lawmakers.

Board member Megan Harding, who sat in the Zoom call with Gruters, was enthusiastic that the idea won the backing of a key member of the majority party.

“We want to know where our kiddos are at. That data is valuable,” said Harding, a classroom teacher before joining the board. “But we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I am so thankful to hear (Gruters) is supporting our teachers and our students.”

Bill sponsor Thurston, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, said he was pleased to learn of his chairman’s comments.

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“If he is supporting it, he is a good man,” Thurston said. “It is something I think should certainly garner bipartisan support.”

He agreed with the concept of gauging student achievement after months of classes impacted by social distancing, quarantines, remote learning and other obstacles.

“But let’s not punish anyone because of the pandemic,” he said, noting he had heard from many parents, teachers and students about this concern.

An identical bill is filed in the House, where it has been referred to four committees. The state Department of Education has not determined whether it will ask for any related waivers from the federal government.