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Florida Board of Education hears more worries about new school testing

MaryEllen Elia wants to delay the effects of the new tests.
MaryEllen Elia wants to delay the effects of the new tests.
Published Sep. 30, 2014

TAMPA — Florida school districts are ill-prepared to administer state tests this spring and should get a one-year respite from school grades, Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the state Board of Education on Monday.

Her comments reflect what other Florida superintendents have been saying for months, and they echoed mounting public concern over state testing.

Board members, meeting for the first time since anti-testing sentiment intensified this fall, did not respond to Elia. And state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said in an interview there was little she could do to address the concerns.

Elia offered a laundry list of problems she and her colleagues have identified with the state's move to new tests called the Florida Standards Assessments, and with the adoption of local exams for evaluating teacher performance.

Many students lack the computer skills to write essays and complete other parts of the online tests, Elia said. School districts, meanwhile, don't have all the resources they need to give computerized testing and continue with digital instruction, which, she added, lawmakers accelerated by a year.

The tests, which will replace the FCAT, haven't been field tested in Florida, either, Elia said, suggesting that confidence in the school accountability system hangs in the balance.

School boards, parent groups and others across Florida increasingly have criticized the state testing model in recent weeks. They have called for delays and even more dramatic options, particularly the ability for students to opt out of the tests.

"Our concerns are based on what we see as the immediate challenges facing us this year," Elia told the board, which met at the Tampa Airport Marriott.

Noting that the tests are high stakes, she asked the board for direction if parents come to a district or school seeking to opt out of testing for their children. She also made recommendations to help with the transition to the latest set of exams:

• Hold school grades in abeyance for a year while the state gathers baseline performance data.

• Remove the consequences of poor test results, including course failure and holding students back in third grade.

• Reduce the percentage that student test performance counts toward teacher evaluations, which impact employment and pay.

Florida superintendents have been asking the state to consider these changes since early this year. But as the 2015 testing season draws closer, their calls have taken on more urgency.

In February, Stewart sought to ease concerns by removing the triggers that cause a school grade to automatically drop. However, other elements of the state's accountability system remained in place and the state will continue to issue school grades.

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Many local school officials complained the state's actions didn't go far enough.

"Despite the controversies … the superintendents support the Florida state standards," Elia told the state board. "We support an accountability system based on results of assessments that accurately and fairly assess students."

After Monday's meeting, Stewart said in an interview that most of the issues Elia raised are controlled by the Legislature, not her.

The only area she saw as possibly outside lawmakers' purview was the school grading formula, which was revamped over the spring. She said minor tweaks could be made.

Stewart noted that the state has changed tests before, most recently from the FCAT to the FCAT 2.0 in 2011-12. This time, she continued, the state provided more resources, materials and training to prepare for the switch than ever before.

"We got through that," she said. "I think we can, and will, get through these changes."

Stewart had little to offer districts on how they should handle requests for students to opt out of testing.

"I advised superintendents on Friday that I think it would be important that they work with their attorneys to figure out what the consequences would be," Stewart said.

Lawyers have advised the Florida School Boards Association that opting out of tests, or advising families to do so, could come with negative financial and social consequences.

Overall, Stewart held firm to the value of testing.

"We're not going to assess ourselves into greatness," she said. "But we're not going to know where we are without assessments."

State board member Marva Johnson of Winter Garden said after the meeting she was pleased to hear the superintendents stand behind the state standards. She expressed hope that the next state education budget will provide enough funding to alleviate all the technology and related concerns.

"I love that the superintendents are open to a dialogue," Johnson said. Elia "is not wrong. There's a lot of hard work to be done."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

(Editor's Note: This story has been edited to correct the name of the state's new standardized tests, the Florida Standards Assessments.)