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  1. Education

Reacting to complaints, Florida lawmakers call for less testing in schools

The results of Education Commissioner Pam Stewart’s investigation into Florida’s standardized testing system are due to be released next month.

TALLAHASSEE — After a year that saw parents rise up against standardized testing, Florida lawmakers on Wednesday said they are prepared to improve the state's assessment program.

"We have a chance to do a rewrite so we can ensure that we are not overtesting our children, and ensure that we provide a road map to the districts about how to do this," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

Lawmakers floated a number of ideas. Among them:

• Reducing the overall number of state-mandated exams.

• Eliminating repetitive tests.

• Allowing some national tests, such as the Advanced Placement exams, to stand in the place of state-mandated tests.

• Providing districts with more flexibility on how to assess students.

Lawmakers also discussed districts' readiness for the new Florida Standards Assessments, which launch this year. Several school districts have said they lack the technology needed to give the computer-based tests — and have turned to the Legislature for help.

While it is unlikely that lawmakers can make any changes before the testing cycle begins in the spring, they intend to act quickly, Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Don Gaetz said.

"We don't have a year or two to study this," said Gaetz, R-Nice­ville. "Any kind of cleanup that we need, or simplification we need in testing and assessment, should have been addressed by now. We're in the fourth quarter."

Participation in the testing program is mandated by Florida law. The requirements include reading tests in grades 3 through 11, math tests in grades 3 through 8, and science tests in grades 5 and 8.

High school students must take six end-of-course exams, among other tests.

Parents have long complained about the state's emphasis on testing and the stress it puts on schoolchildren. But new additions to the assessment program have prompted even more of a backlash in recent months.

This year, the Education Department is rolling out the Florida Standards Assessments, some of which will be given on computers. The tests are aligned to Florida's new education benchmarks, based on the Common Core State Standards. School districts are also required to develop additional assessments in courses not covered by a statewide exam as part of the move to performance pay for teachers.

"You senators know that we have gone test crazy in our state," Fort Myers businesswoman and grandmother Chris Quackenbush told the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.

In that meeting, and a meeting of the Senate Pre-K Education Committee later in the day, senators pelted state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart with sharp questions and concerns about the testing program.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said she had heard from parents and teachers "all summer long" about the stress of testing.

Gaetz, who asked pointed questions about the cost of the program, said he was troubled by a lack of information.

"We don't know how much time is consumed by state-mandated tests," he said. "We don't know much money it costs to perform state-mandated tests. We don't know whether tests that are required by state mandate are valid and reliable."

Stewart reminded lawmakers that she is conducting an investigation into standardized testing. She plans to release a final report next month, she said.

Several senators, including Education Committee Chairman John Legg of Pasco County, said they would like to see "fewer, better tests" in the future. But Legg and others made it clear that testing is here to stay.

In addition to the number of tests, state lawmakers also discussed the new Florida Standards Assessments.

Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia raised separate concerns about the amount of time it takes to give the computer-based tests.

"It's not the assessment," she said. "I agree with the assessments matched to the standards. But the way that we're administrating it is going to cause — and has caused — an excessive amount of time to be used in the school, and it is a disruption."

Stewart noted that computer-based tests were being phased in over the next several years, giving districts time to adjust. She promised a "smooth transition" to the new exams.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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