School districts take action at home to ease over-testing

Amid criticism of a statewide focus on exams, districts look inward to ease the burden.

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Published November 1 2014
Updated November 2 2014

Florida school district leaders long have criticized the state for focusing too heavily on high-stakes testing. But lately they've been taking action on their own, cutting back on local tests even as they call on the state to pare down.

"I, for one, am tired of imploring the governor and the Legislature to do what is right for kids," said Pinellas County School Board member Linda Lerner. "Let's look at what the district is doing. We need to look at what we can take away."

Lerner and her colleagues have asked their administration for a list of current district tests to see how they can give schools more flexibility. Pinellas has eliminated some middle and high school final exams, and reduced the number of math, science and language arts assessments for second- through fifth-graders.

Hillsborough County School Board members have requested a similar review, which is under way.

"There should be some opportunity for us to determine which of these tests do we really need to understand how well we are doing," board member Doretha Edgecomb said.

Pasco County also has started reducing the load.

The district has scaled back midyear tests in several subjects and grade levels, allowing teachers to use those exams as needed for individual students. Plans call for the elimination of other assessments as well, particularly to reduce duplication, said Peggy Jones, director of assessment.

For example, Jones said, teacher-written finals will go away as district or state end-of-course exams are implemented.

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning, who opposes local end-of-course tests for teacher evaluations, began the process a year ago. He acted amid teacher complaints that they were forced to administer too many tests with limited value.

"Our goal is to give teachers the tools they need to improve student achievement without overburdening them with mandatory, prescriptive testing requirements," Browning wrote in a letter to faculty.

Districts across Florida are taking similar steps.

Palm Beach County superintendent E. Wayne Gent told teachers and principals on Wednesday that he would suspend nearly a dozen district-mandated winter diagnostic tests, in addition to all remaining middle school nine-week exams. He also made all district-level performance assessments optional. The purpose was to ensure enough time for teaching and learning, said chief academic officer Keith Oswald, who called the exams unnecessary.

Teachers can still use the tests or their questions in their instruction, but it's a choice, not a mandate.

Days earlier, the Miami-Dade County School District altered its local testing schedule to add 260 minutes of classroom teaching time. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called for a review of local tests after making a similar demand of the state. His team concluded that two sets of exams were similar enough to others that they weren't needed.

So he eliminated them.

Lee and Duval counties also have cut back on local testing, while Broward County superintendent Robert Runcie on Thursday announced plans to examine his district's exam schedule with an eye toward trimming it.

In Hernando County, the teachers' union plans to promote a resolution calling for a reduction. But so far, district spokesman Eric Williams said, the board has no formal plans to decrease testing.

School district testing proliferated gradually over the years in what became an education arms race of sorts. Local educators said they needed their own tests to help them tell in advance whether students would pass the state's high-stakes tests.

But state officials have said for years that such an approach is overkill, adding that state tests are a small piece of the assessment puzzle.

As districts have complained about tests, education commissioners, lawmakers and even the governor have suggested they look in the mirror. Former commissioner Gerard Robinson's comments to that effect in 2012 enraged school board members, contributing to his quick fall from grace.

Hoping to clarify the issue, the Legislature required districts to publish test calendars listing all state and district exams given during the school year. Those lists led to some of the introspection that is prompting local testing cutbacks now.

The mood is such that even Jeb Bush's accountability-driven Foundation for Excellence in Education is pressing for fewer, better tests. Some key lawmakers say they're interested in pursuing the conversation.

A growing number of districts aren't waiting.

"We are assessing too much," Pasco superintendent Browning said. "We need to have one of those really tough discussions. What are we going to do about this? Can we get where we need to go without all these assessments? . . . There's got to be some common sense put back in this process."

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

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