Hillsborough School Board questions volume of student tests

Published April 27, 2012

TAMPA — Advanced placement tests, FCAT tests, end-of-course exams — the schedule can be overwhelming.

"It's insane," Hillsborough County School Board Chairwoman Candy Olson said at Thursday's board meeting. "I'd like to see us work with the Legislature and state organizations to try and bring a little bit of sanity to this thing called testing."

Board member April Griffin suggested the board might join the Palm Beach County School District, which has asked the state to re-examine accountability systems and use multiple forms of assessment instead of so many tests.

The Palm Beach County resolution also asks the federal government to reduce the number of testing mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act and not order any fixed role for student test scores in evaluating educators. No vote was taken.

In discussions about the troubled Urban Teaching Academy at Blake, Middleton and Hillsborough high schools, board member Susan Valdes asked attorney Thomas Gonzalez if the district might be in violation of contracts with the students — or the federal government, which funded the program.

The academy promised college tuition and book funds to students who completed the program successfully, and is now struggling to come up with the money as the first class prepares to graduate. Gonzalez said the district has not committed any such violation.

Valdes also asked if the district can use money in its reserve funds to pay tuition costs for the first class entering college. No one responded.

Olson restated her confidence that the nonprofit Hillsborough Education Foundation will come through with the needed assistance. Olson also said she was not aware of a commitment in the grant to pay for books, although book funds are mentioned in program brochures and applications.

Estimates of the number of students now affected range from 16 to 29.

Board member Stacy White said the situation — and others involving grants — suggest the board might need to have more oversight. White was unsuccessful on April 10 in passing a motion that would take some of the autonomy in accepting grants away from the administration.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb, whose district includes the three affected schools, acknowledged the day before the meeting that "somewhere, the ball was dropped." But she said for now, it is more important to get students the help they need.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, as before, said no promise has been broken. "I personally will be meeting or talking to all the parents and students," she said. "We're working to help them."

Elia said Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida have pledged scholarships. A spokesman for USF, while not ruling out scholarships, said last week the help will consist largely of financial aid counseling.

Jose Colindres, chief operating officer of the nonprofit Brink Foundation, said his organization will contribute $25,000 to the scholarship effort. He invited students affected to contact his organization. And he criticized Elia for her statements about HCC and USF. "Honestly, the board and the superintendent do not have a lot of credibility with the community when it comes to this particular topic," he said.