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Senate panel favors proposal to change how Florida uses school tests

The bill won bipartisan support, but also generated questions that members wanted answered before fully committing.
Sen. Perry Thurston presents his bill to pause the consequences of state accountability testing during a Senate Education Committee meeting Tuesday.
Sen. Perry Thurston presents his bill to pause the consequences of state accountability testing during a Senate Education Committee meeting Tuesday. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published Mar. 2
Updated Mar. 2

An effort to spare Florida students, teachers and schools from the more punitive consequences of the state testing accountability system received bipartisan support from state senators on the first day of the 2021 legislative session.

But several members of the Senate Education Committee expressed reservations about the measure (SB 886), which is popular among many parent and educator groups. They said it might have the right intentions but could generate unintended consequences that need more attention as the bill progresses.

Related: Remove consequences from student test results, key Florida lawmaker says

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who works for a college affiliated with a charter school, said the bill brings about a “worthwhile conversation in a very complex time.” He raised concerns that the current version might hurt schools that could be counting on good test scores to receive more funding or to lift them out of “turnaround” status.

The bill includes provisions that would eliminate the use of test scores to keep third-graders from being promoted or keep a high school student from graduating. It also would cancel school grades this year.

Diaz, who opposed the bill, suggested the state Department of Education needed to be consulted, to determine whether taking the steps outlined by sponsor Sen. Perry Thurston could be accomplished without negative outcomes.

He was not alone. Others on the committee shared the concerns that federal funding might be jeopardized, among other possibilities.

“When you dig deep into this policy, it affects teacher bonuses and other aspects we need to deal with,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, chairman of the Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee.

Thurston, a Broward County Democrat, said he remained open to any amendment that could improve his bill while still getting to the main goal of not using test scores to penalize students and teachers who already have endured a difficult year.

He stressed that students would still be required to take the statewide assessments. It’s just important to use the results to measure progress and determine next steps at this point, as occurred in spring 2020, he said.

Senators from both parties agreed to give more time to work through the questions.

“The intent of this legislation is definitely the right intent,” said committee vice chairman Shevrin Jones, another Broward County Democrat, who pledged to work with all interested parties to improve the bill.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who’s in line to become Senate president in 2022, said she fretted over the learning losses children might have experienced. She said it’s important to test them, to know where they need help.

“There are problems with the bill, but I’m going to support it here today,” she said.

Bethany Swanson, deputy chief of staff for the state Department of Education, told the committee that the department would welcome conversations with Thurston and others about the proposal. She said the department is assessing its options in seeking a waiver of the testing requirements from the federal government, addressing some of Diaz’s issues, as it considers “how we can make the best decision to make sure our system is set up for success.”

Representatives from several groups, including the Florida PTA, urged the ultimate passage of the bill. The Pasco County School Board sent a lobbyist to introduce a resolution supporting the measure that it passed earlier in the day.

Thurston sounded optimistic that the proposal could make it through the process.

“I think that we can do this,” he told the committee just before the vote.

The bill next heads to the Senate’s Education Appropriations subcommittee. Its House companion has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.