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  1. Education

Proposal to scale back school testing advances, but concerns linger

Sen. Anitere Flores, right, talks with Sen. Rene Garcia on the floor of the Florida Senate. Flores is helping spearhead a bill that would move state testing for language arts and math to the final three weeks of the school year. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

An effort to tame the school testing system in Florida cleared a key hurdle Monday, picking up a heavy dose of amendments and winning the support of the Senate Education Committee.

Lawmakers say the bill will provide relief to overburdened students and teachers.

But some educators still have concerns, particularly about a less-ambitious version of the proposal under consideration in the House, which focuses on pushing back the testing timeline.

"It's going to be very difficult for schools to function when nothing else changes except for the (testing) window," said Mike Grego, superintendent of Pinellas County schools.

Particularly in high schools, Grego said, the month of May is already plenty busy with testing. Teens are sitting for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, state end-of-course and other exams.

Trying to fit the state assessments into that packed schedule would be a tall order, he said.

"What you're effectively doing is cramming that all into the month of May," said Michael Cloyd, principal of Sunlake High School in Pasco County. "That would be a logistical challenge.

The House and the Senate agree on the need to scale back the state assessments, but have different ideas on how to get there.

The House proposal, spearheaded by Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, would push the Florida Standards Assessments in language arts and math to the final three weeks of the school year, and require the quicker turnaround of results.

The Senate bill would also move testing back by several weeks. But it would take several other steps to ease the load, such as getting rid of some end-of-course exams and allowing districts to return to paper tests, which are easier to administer.

Without paper tests, schools would scramble to secure enough devices to serve larger numbers of students at the same time, said Nicole Binder, Hillsborough County assessment manager.

The schools still would have to guarantee students an optimal testing environment, Binder added, including the special circumstances allowed for students with added needs. Some are allowed more time to finish, for instance, and they cannot be forced out early.

There might not be enough hours in the day to get it all done, she suggested.

But even if they move to paper, other wrinkles could crop up.

To maintain test security, the state would likely retain control of the scoring. That would require districts to send the documents to Tallahassee.

In Hillsborough schools, Binder said, past experience showed it took three to four days to get the papers picked up from schools and delivered to a warehouse, where the Department of Education would pick them up.

That could lengthen the time to return results.

"Right now, the statute says they have to come back the week of June 8," noted Peggy Jones, Pasco County director of assessment.

Neither bill suggests moving that date.

Eliminating some state end-of-course exams, as the Senate has proposed, could lift some of the logistical burden on schools, Binder said. But that move would have implications on the state's school grading system, which incorporates the results.

"We would have to look at how accountability is impacted," she said.

Pinellas superintendent Grego said ending the end-of-course exams in geometry, algebra II, civics and U.S. history would not mean student knowledge would no longer be measured. It would simply eliminate an unneeded layer of state tests, he said.

If lawmakers balk at that idea, he said, an alternative might be to use the state exams as course finals, detached from the school grading system. That way they could still be taken at the end of the course, as their name implies, yet be freed from the lengthy verification process that delays the results and makes them less useful.

Having fewer tests that add meaning to teaching and learning, and providing more time for that instruction to occur, is one of the key goals for all involved.

"Every hour of academic time that is lost is an almost immeasurable cost," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee lawmaker who has helped craft the Senate bill. "This is the year we have to do it."

Grego, who once served as Florida's K-12 chancellor, said he would like to see a more comprehensive approach to have the best outcome.

The sooner, the better, added Cloyd, the Sunlake High principal.

"If they change the rules now for next May, that would give us a year for planning," he said, "which would be the lead time we would need."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or Follow @jeffsolochek.