DeSantis calls for an end to most spring testing in Florida schools

His goal is to have this year be the final one for Florida Standards Assessments.
Gov. Ron DeSantis makes remarks accompanied by teachers, parents and education officials, during a news conference Tuesday to announce a major reduction in spring testing in Florida schools. He appeared High Point Elementary School in Clearwater.
Gov. Ron DeSantis makes remarks accompanied by teachers, parents and education officials, during a news conference Tuesday to announce a major reduction in spring testing in Florida schools. He appeared High Point Elementary School in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Sept. 14, 2021|Updated Sept. 14, 2021

The days of preparing and sitting for hours’ worth of spring state tests could be nearing an end for many of Florida’s public school students.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday called on lawmakers to revamp the state’s school accountability system by eliminating several of the annual exams and replacing them with shorter “progress monitoring” tests, which are tailored to individual students and already given throughout the school year.

“This will be one of our top priorities in the legislative session,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Miami.

He said the idea would reduce testing in the schools by 75 percent and help students and teachers make adjustments during the school year, while also keeping parents better informed. His proposal applies to the basic Florida Standards Assessments exams given for English/language arts and math, but not for end-of-course exams in subjects such as algebra, U.S. history and biology.

It came days before the Legislature begins its pre-session committee weeks, with the Senate Education Committee slated to hold a discussion the afternoon of Sept. 21 on standards and assessments.

“I want more learning and less test prep,” DeSantis said at a second news conference in Clearwater. “You can do this in a much more effective way.”

Broad support

Florida’s education and political communities responded quickly with broad support for the idea, a striking change amid a legal battle over school masks that has deeply divided the state.

Miami-Dade County school superintendent Alberto Carvalho praised the turn toward “fewer, better state assessments with greater reliance on ongoing, real-time progress monitoring data.”

“It’s exactly what we teachers have been asking for,” said Sarah Painter, Florida’s Teacher of the Year, who works at Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater. “It’s data in real time rather than through a culminating effort.”

Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning called it “a huge shift for school accountability in Florida” and a welcome one, provided “valuable student performance data” will still be collected. Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego called the idea “a good next step to our accountability system.”

Parents offered similar reactions, calling the announcement “the best news” and “a good move” to swerve away from sending money to testing vendors for a product that did little to help students.

Lawmakers also signaled initial support. State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat who is vice chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, said the state’s testing system has needed major changes for years.

“I would love for this to be a bipartisan effort for us to reimagine what testing looks like in the state of Florida,” said Jones, a former teacher.

Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who sits with Jones on the Senate Education Committee, said he favors the governor’s proposal as long as it allows the state to keep measuring student performance and hold schools accountable. “I have always said life isn’t about one big test but rather a series of tests and quizzes,” he said.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls shared Hutson’s perspective, indicating general backing of the idea but saying the modifications should be “consistent with the core values of high standards and effectively measuring student learning,” spokeswoman Jenna Box Sarkissian said.

Though the assessments would go away, other elements of Florida’s school accountability system would remain the same, including school grades, turnaround plans for struggling schools and teacher evaluations based partly on student performance, education commissioner Richard Corcoran said during DeSantis’ Clearwater stop.

In that sense, he said, “everything stays the same.”

Details matter

Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said the idea had merit, as it could lessen the testing load while still providing plenty of information for evaluating performance. It would measure growth, he noted, because the students sit for progress monitoring more than once during the year.

“Our hope is we will work with legislators to try and get it done right,” he said.

Some of the Floridians who have offered the loudest critiques of Florida’s test-based accountability system had more questions than praise.

“How will they collect the high-stakes data used for school grades and teacher evaluations?,” asked Cindy Hamilton, co-founder of the Florida Opt-Out Network. “Our position has always been that the high stakes attached to testing needs to end. I am not seeing that promise in anything that the governor has said.”

Bob Schaeffer, the Florida-based executive director of FairTest, said DeSantis’ proposal sounded good “on first blush.” But he shared Hamilton’s concerns, and wondered how the state can get around federal testing requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Until issues like these are addressed, Florida education stakeholders will not know whether the governor’s proposal amounts to significant assessment reform or just another case of ‘changing the name to protect the guilty,’” Schaeffer said in an email.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of Jeb Bush’s education foundation, had many questions as well. While praising the idea of moving to a more time-sensitive adaptive testing model, she wondered whether the proposal would lead to three high-stakes assessments for students rather than the current one, and whether the spring “progress monitoring” would have the effect of providing less time to teach.

National proponents of year-end testing, meanwhile, raised concerns that shifting away could hurt vulnerable students, potentially pushing aside meaningful information about achievement gaps and learning loss.

A timely idea

Florida schools have used mid-year testing for a number of years to help determine where students are succeeding and falling behind. The state Department of Education put increased focus on the effort when it asked school districts for their 2020-21 reopening plans, stressing that having student performance data is critical to overcoming any learning deficits.

Last year, many schools were able to predict their spring testing results with accuracy using the model, suggesting that the actual exams — long a source of discontent among many parents and educators — might be redundant.

Gov. Ron DeSantis listens as education commissioner Richard Corcoran answers a reporter’s questions on school testing Tuesday at High Point Elementary.
Gov. Ron DeSantis listens as education commissioner Richard Corcoran answers a reporter’s questions on school testing Tuesday at High Point Elementary. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“I think it’s going to be transformative to how students learn,” Corcoran said, noting many have criticized the current testing regimen as an “autopsy,” with results coming too late to be helpful. What the governor is proposing will be “diagnostic,” he said.

Once all 67 county school districts are on the same progress monitoring system, the state stands to save millions of dollars by not administering the Florida Standards Assessments, Corcoran said.

He said he agreed with DeSantis that the assessments are outdated, waste precious teaching time and are not effective at measuring student progress and addressing shortfalls.

“From April to May, we basically shut down schools for testing,” he said.

He said the faults of standardized testing became evident during the first full school year of the pandemic, when results from Florida Standards Assessments were not counted, but schools were using progress monitoring.

Now could prove a timely opportunity to make changes, as Florida already has been moving away from the Florida Standards Assessments because of its switch to the new BEST standards, which took effect in kindergarten through second grade this year.

If the Legislature runs with DeSantis’ recommendation, it would not be the first time lawmakers have talked about reducing the student testing load since the start of Bush’s A-Plus Plan more than two decades ago.

They have over the years eliminated some high school math and English tests, for instance, and shifted the testing period to later in the year to allow more time for learning. At the same time, though, they also have added new civics testing requirements, among others.

David Goodhue and Ana Ceballos of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.

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