Florida to seek waiver on student testing rules

Officials will accept public comment before detailing how results will be used.
State Board of Education member Tom Grady says he supports seeking a federal testing accountability waiver for 2021 because it will allow Florida to focus on state concerns.
State Board of Education member Tom Grady says he supports seeking a federal testing accountability waiver for 2021 because it will allow Florida to focus on state concerns. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published March 17, 2021|Updated March 17, 2021

With pressure mounting to cancel the consequences of spring academic testing, Florida state education officials on Wednesday announced their plan to request a waiver of the accountability rules set forth in federal law.

If approved, a waiver wouldn’t stop the tests from taking place, as occurred a year ago. The Biden administration did not go that far in its flexibility offer, much to many parents’ and teachers’ consternation.

It would, however, allow the state to move away from such requirements as testing 95 percent of students and using the scores to grade schools. That would leave the state more room to focus on its own rules and goals for determining school progress and offering needed support, Department of Education chief of staff Alex Kelly told the State Board of Education at its meeting at Tallahassee Community College.

“It provides an opportunity for Florida to essentially exercise its sovereignty,” Kelly said.

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

Board members applauded the move while praising the state for opening its schools far ahead of others, saying doing so is putting Florida’s students in a better position for success.

Board member Tom Grady, a Naples lawyer and former state lawmaker, said a waiver would allow the state to escape what he said were misguided federal mandates. “They have not got it right, and we have,” he said.

Board member Joe York, president of AT&T Florida, said he supports the state’s desire to pursue high standards and use testing to determine where students and teachers stand. At the same time, he stressed the importance of the need to “continue to operate with compassion and grace” when putting the concepts into practice.

Monesia Brown, Florida director of public affairs for Walmart and the board’s newest member, reiterated that point. Getting data is important, she said, but the state can’t forget how difficult this period of time has been on students and parents, as well as on teachers and schools.

Exactly how Florida might use the waiver is not yet clear.

The state is opening a two-week public input period on the proposed waiver, which will be posted on the state’s website, spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said. Comments will be accepted through March 31, after which time more details should be available, Fenske said.

Already, department officials have received hundreds of emails and calls raising questions and concerns about testing this school year, she said. Those have included issues such as whether a high school senior will be able to graduate without having passed all mandated tests and how a school that has made improvements can get out from under the state’s stringent accountability oversight system.

The goal, Fenske said, will be to create a flexible model that can treat each situation fairly. Some would require using the results, while others would depend on setting them aside.

“I think we can make it work. But we need to take it one step at a time,” Fenske said.

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Related: Senate panel favors proposal to change how Florida uses school tests

State officials want students to take the exams seriously, so the results will be accurate and can help educators plan their instruction going forward.

“We have to see the impact of the pandemic,” said state Rep. Chris Latvala, chairman of the House Education Committee.

He said he did not anticipate taking up legislation to cancel the consequences of standardized testing, as some House members have proposed. An identical bill gained bipartisan support in its first Senate stop.

“I’m going to leave it up to the (Department of Education) to make that call,” Latvala said.