Florida students and parents worried about how the state planned to use their spring test scores got some welcome news on Friday.
When it comes to third-grade promotion, high school graduation, Bright Futures scholarship eligibility and other critical issues, their test results won’t be held against them.
In a seven-page emergency order issued Friday morning, education commissioner Richard Corcoran authorized school districts and charter schools to waive state testing requirements for spring 2021 high school graduates who have otherwise demonstrated their qualification for a diploma. He also gave graduating seniors until December 2021 to earn a score making them eligible for a Bright Futures scholarship, and provided a way for them to show they tried but could not complete the required community service hours.
The order further gave districts the power to make grade promotion and course passage decisions based on class performance, without considering state exam results. That would allow third-graders to advance regardless of their Florida Standards Assessment reading result, which has been a gate keeper, and not count end-of-course exams such as biology and U.S. history as 30 percent of students’ course grades.
Public schools chancellor Jacob Oliva stressed that schools should be “surgical in applying the flexibilities, and not sweeping,” as they look at each individual child’s needs.
The action requires schools to provide added assistance to struggling students who have been at risk of failure.
“Local school districts, in consultation with parents, are in the best position to evaluate the academic progress of each student and then to make individualized decisions related to student progression and graduation in keeping with the best interest of each child,” Corcoran stated in one of the many “whereas” clauses of the document.
Beyond its impact on students, the order additionally will have effects on teachers and schools. It changes the way schools may measure student performance for the purpose of evaluating teachers, and it suspends school grades for another year unless schools opt in because they anticipate improvement that will remove them from state oversight and turnaround requirements.
“We’re going to continue that narrative of leading with compassion and grace,” senior chancellor Eric Hall told superintendents during a conference call explaining the approach.
A ‘wise decision’
The order came after months of pressure from parents, educators and, most recently, state lawmakers from both parties. It arrived at the end of the first full week of writing and reading tests statewide.
Reaction to the commissioner’s announcement came swiftly. It was mostly positive, with many on social media suggesting that the one-year action should become permanent.
“OMG THIS MAKES ME SO EXCITED,” Pasco County high school English teacher Barbara Dukeman said in an email. “I have ONE senior who still needed the math — he’ll be walking with his class in 55 days!”
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Pinellas County parent Stephanie Cox said she was pleased the state decided to lower the stakes on students, teachers and schools. The testing environment creates so much pressure and tension, Cox said, and this year that wasn’t something that anyone needs.
“I think this is a wise decision,” she said. “This is going to be welcome news for many teachers, administrators and parents who have been worried trying to keep kids healthy and happy in a pandemic ... while also trying to make sure they are learning.”
Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego, who leads the state superintendents association, praised the state for collaborating with education leaders all year to craft solutions aimed at helping students, teachers and schools.
“Everything we had kind of asked for has been answered in this emergency order,” Grego said.
Months of pressure
Since the school year began, Corcoran made clear he wanted students to sit for the Florida Standards Assessments and end-of-course exams, so teachers and schools will know how to allocate their time and money next fall. Concerns have been high that many children will have fallen behind during more than a year of less-than-ideal learning circumstances.
The test scores, Corcoran argued, would provide that road map for getting everyone back on track, and closing whatever achievement gaps that emerged during the pandemic.
At the same time, the commissioner declined to say how the state planned to use the scores. In normal times, those outcomes guide such decisions as student third-grade promotion and high school graduation, teacher evaluations and school rankings.
He would say only that he intended to treat everyone fairly and with compassion.
That led to a great deal of angst as people could only guess at the state’s intentions.
Many parents who have kept their kids learning remotely raised concerns about the safety of the testing sites and said they intended to let their children skip the tests. Others questioned how the exams could be standardized, considering that students and teachers have gone through a range of highly varied education circumstances during the year.
And they suggested it would be circumspect at best to use the scores for anything but individual evaluation of performance and next steps. Several contended it would be better to simply cancel the tests altogether, something Corcoran signaled he never would do.
Teacher, superintendent and school board groups called on the state to detach the scores from the consequences. State lawmakers joined in.
At the end of March, while the department prepared its request to waive federal test accountability requirements, the Senate Education Committee advanced a bill that would have put into law many of the rules that the parents and educators had been asking for. Those included a ban for the year on using test scores to determine third-graders’ status or high school seniors’ ability to graduate, as well as eliminating sanctions against schools where scores declined.
Lawmakers made clear at the time that they did not necessarily expect the measure to become law.
“We don’t always have to pass a law to put these things into effect, but I think it does send a clear message to him and where the Legislature is,” said Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican and ally of the DeSantis administration.