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  1. Education

Florida's school testing debate is alive again with calls to adopt a national exam

The push to overhaul Florida's testing system is regaining momentum with a proposal to replace the new Florida Standards Assessments with tried and true national exams.

Seminole County School District leaders, who launched the effort this summer, suggest the national tests would be less time-consuming and easier to implement. The FSAs can take up to 20 days to administer, while the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a well-known nationally standardized test, takes five days or fewer.

The message out of Seminole is resonating across the state.

Lake and Manatee county school boards have endorsed the idea, and others are considering joining the movement.

"I would be open to that," Pasco County School Board chairman Steve Luikart said. "I need to do a little more investigative work. If everybody joins in, maybe (the state) will make some changes. I'm a firm believer that this testing stuff is way out of whack."

The concept also has been bandied about by Pinellas School Board members, who discussed it briefly at a Tuesday workshop.

"We would love to go to a norm-referenced test," board member Carol Cook said. "It gives students, parents and the district a much better read on how the students are doing compared to the rest of the nation."

She said the Pinellas board hasn't adopted a resolution backing the "Seminole Solution," but superintendent Mike Grego has talked to state education commissioner Pam Stewart about the possibilities.

Seminole County officials have tried that route, to little effect.

Seminole superintendent Walt Griffin sent Stewart a letter in June explaining the idea, which a handful of other states are independently adopting, only to be dismissed. Florida has its own set of standards, Stewart responded, and state law requires students be tested "based on the same academic content standards in which they are instructed."

Rather than deterring the Seminole board, Stewart's answer emboldened members to redouble their promotion of a national test — and just not to the Department of Education.

"We keep, as school districts, going to DOE because we've been programmed to get answers from DOE. But all the DOE gives us is a regurgitation of the law," said Seminole board vice chairwoman Amy Lockhart. "If the law is the problem, let's change it. … There is no point in engaging the DOE any more."

Lockhart sent Griffin's letter to her colleagues across Florida, asking them to consider getting on board. She also brought it to the Central Florida school boards coalition for a discussion.

The full Seminole board continued to debate it publicly, too, with the intent of refining it enough to present it to both the State Board of Education and the Legislature. One point they've made clear: Despite assertions by Stewart and others, Florida's standards aren't that different from the Common Core standards that many national tests seek to measure.

Lockhart said lawmakers have met with her board and "they're very interested in hearing what they could do to change the law and fix the system."

The notion of reforms bubbling up is not new. Just a year ago, the Lee County School Board breathed new life into Florida's testing reform debate when it unexpectedly voted to drop out of state testing.

The board reversed course. But its bold stance fired up critics of high-stakes testing, taking the discussion to new levels that led to some legislative reforms.

Those included a reduction in testing requirements, and changes to the use of results on teacher evaluations.

Lockhart was hopeful that a similar groundswell this year could lead to another round of amendments.

"We've got to try to get some relief for our students," she said. "We all agree that students need more time to learn, and teachers need more time to teach."

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

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