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  1. Education

Florida suspends a controversial exam as debate widens over school testing

Published Sep. 16, 2014

After weeks of protests, Florida testing critics claimed a victory Monday: The state suspended one of its tests.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart ended the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading, known as the FAIR test, in kindergarten through second grade. In its place, teachers will observe children's reading abilities in a more informal setting than the online exam, which recently experienced glitches.

Stewart announced the change in a memo to superintendents.

"It's amazing," said Susan Bowles, the Alachua County kindergarten teacher whose widely publicized refusal to administer FAIR this fall sparked the state's move. "I am very grateful that they have seen that the test was not a good thing for children."

Unlike other tests, FAIR is used solely to monitor students' progress and has no impact on school grades or funding. But Bowles and other advocates expressed hope that the next step would be a wider discussion about testing in Florida schools.

"There is a yearning from teachers and parents that the whole testing structure and mentality get looked at and changed," she said.

That movement has blossomed in recent weeks, with the Lee County School Board providing a key catalyst. That board briefly opted out of state testing, decrying the stress it creates, only to rescind its action amid threats of lost funding and hindered student progress.

Its votes, however, prompted other Florida school districts to have their own conversations about testing, and how they could dampen the pressure.

Some superintendents already had been limiting the number of locally mandated tests they offer, while others announced they would not have their districts create and adopt hundreds of exams for the sole purpose of evaluating teacher performance. The idea of making those tests, particularly for the earliest grades, generated a great deal of anger in some circles.

Gov. Rick Scott, meanwhile, called for "thorough investigation of all standardized tests," as part of his re-election platform. His tea party base has long opposed any testing associated with the Common Core standards, which it considers a federal intrusion.

Lee County educator and antitesting activist Kathleen Jasper said she understood that politics could be at play.

"But I'm not going to say it's politics," she said. "I'm going to say people are listening to us. The work is starting to take shape."

Jasper and others praised Bowles, who teaches at Lawton Chiles Elementary in Gainesville, for stepping forward.

"She took a real act of courage," said Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. "Sometimes you need that person to say, 'I won't cross that line, I won't get off your bus, I won't administer your test.' "

He called the state's action on the FAIR test — which students take three times a year — an easy place for the state to back down.

But it also could prove the inroad to broader change.

"Across the country, we've seen politicians backpedaling in the face of public pressure," Schaeffer said. "Whatever people think about the value of some testing, this is clearly too much, and the stakes are too high. This is the first important break in Florida."

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

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