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  1. The Education Gradebook

Florida Senate differs with House as both try to solve school testing issues

A day after the Florida House unanimously backed a bill to reduce state-mandated student testing, the Senate took a whack at the hotly debated topic.

The measure that emerged Thursday from the Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee (SB 616) included the same goal of reducing the state's emphasis on tests. But it differed from the House version in several key ways.

Among them, the Senate bill:

• Offers a "relief valve" that allows schools that faced significant troubles with spring computerized testing to seek a waiver of consequences associated with the results.

• Caps the amount of state- and district-mandated testing at 5 percent of students' total school hours.

• Requires the state and districts to provide test results to families within 30 days of the exams.

• Does not include changes to rules on school start dates and pupil progression that are found in the House bill.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, acknowledged the differences between the two chambers and said he hoped to work out the kinks before his bill reaches the floor.

"I don't want to go into overtime, and I really don't want to go into a shootout," Legg said, using a hockey analogy. If it gets that far, he said, "I think both sides will lose."

The committee drew some passionate parents and teachers whose views covered a wide spectrum — from support for testing and accountability, to opposition to standards and distrust of the system.

Eileen Cassell, a retired principal of Lake Alfred Elementary School in Polk County, said testing "inspired us to give our students the best education possible."

Chris Quackenbush, a Lee County testing critic, by contrast urged lawmakers to dig deeper and "look at the root cause" of education problems "rather than the superficial things to manipulate."

Senators noted that emotions have run high in the statewide debate over testing in schools, intensified by problems faced in the rollout of new computerized tests earlier in the month. Many of those concerns, though, were not connected to the substance of the bill, members said.

"Frankly, I see a bill that eliminates certain mandatory testing that exists in Florida law," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

It increases communication with parents, he said, while easing the impact of test results on teachers. In a nutshell, he concluded, it attacks problems that many people have complained about.

Committee chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, agreed that the bill aims to put testing into its proper perspective — an "important anticlimax" to the school year — after years of stampeding children into nervous wrecks.

"Maybe one of the things we can do is cool it with the testing frenzy," Gaetz said.

But he gave no encouragement to those who want to do away with school accountability, data and measurement. That's not going to happen, he said.

"I support high standards and I support higher standards," Gaetz said. "Once we meet those, I support higher standards after that."

He said the bill also doesn't attempt to solve every problem facing education, whether school technology woes or mandated start dates that make it difficult for districts to end the fall semester before winter break. Those are addressed in other bills.

"I think our bill goes further in being responsive to our good friends who want fewer tests, better tests," he said, using a phrase adopted by former Gov. Jeb Bush's education foundation. The group has led the push for increased accountability in Florida and other states.

The Senate bill has one more committee stop before it goes to the floor. The House bill is on its way to the Senate for consideration.

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

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