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Senate looking for ways to streamline Florida school testing

Sen. David Simmons: “We’re looking for solutions.”
Published Jan. 8, 2017

Two years have passed since Florida lawmakers acknowledged, under mounting pressure from parents and teachers, that public school children might be overtested.

The Legislature took steps to limit testing hours and eliminate some exams, amid criticism over a botched spring computerized assessment cycle.

The technical problems largely dissipated in 2016. But the underlying concerns did not. Now, an influential state lawmaker aims to revisit the issue, with an eye toward further refining the system.

State Sen. David Simmons, who chairs the Education Appropriations Committee, has scheduled his panel's first session of the new year Wednesday to explore ways to reduce the scope and cost of Florida testing.

"I've heard the horror stories," said Simmons, a Longwood Republican. "We're looking for solutions."

He plans to address:

• Testing methods. Simmons suggested a return to paper-pencil testing, noting many superintendents say their schools lack sufficient computers to administer exams efficiently.

• The number of tests. Simmons stressed he does not want to eliminate all tests, but said educators and others have pointed out that many are redundant. In some instances, he added, nationally accepted alternatives could suffice.

• Time spent on testing. Teachers need to be teaching, Simmons said, not preparing students for tests and delaying lessons during testing.

"We are being confronted with a solvable problem," Simmons said. "We want to hear it all."

His House counterparts did not respond to calls seeking comment. They have indicated, however, that they back an "honest conversation" about making testing less onerous and expensive.

They have not placed the issue at the top of their lists, though. Their upcoming committee meeting agendas focus on school choice, a leadership priority.

Some observers wondered whether the chambers' differing approaches would prevent significant action.

"It will be interesting to see how their priorities either become a part of each others' or remain separate," said Andrea Messina, Florida School Boards Association executive director.

They remained hopeful nonetheless that the Senate's testing discussion will yield changes beyond those adopted in 2015.

At that time, lawmakers capped state mandated exams at about 45 hours — higher than most any school offered. They also killed the eleventh-grade state language arts test and eliminated the mandate for local end-of-course exams aimed at evaluating teachers.

In other words, the Legislature stopped an expansion of testing, rather than implementing a reduction. The next steps could be actual cuts.

"I think there's a momentum now," Messina said. "Parents have been very, very influential in articulating their position that they believe it's too much."

Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning, scheduled to testify before the Senate committee, said the coming debate appeared to mesh with what superintendents have sought, wanting to improve Florida's education accountability efforts.

He reiterated the state superintendent association's position that measuring performance matters. But at the same time, he said, it needs to be done better.

"I believe that the (Florida Standards Assessment) is too high-stakes," Browning said. "There ought to be other factors that come into play when you're putting a grade on a school, or you're … determining whether a student goes from third to fourth grade or graduates high school."

Until lawmakers talk about changing the way test results are used, the problems are unlikely to go away, suggested Central Florida education activist Sandy Stenoff. Schools will continue to use pre-tests, practice tests, progress monitoring tests and others as long as state tests impact school funding, teacher job security, student promotion and related matters, she said.

"I think it's a pipe dream unless they want to get really serious about accountability," said Stenoff, a testing opt-out advocate who has used homeschooling, charter schools and traditional schools for her children.

The Florida PTA also calls for fewer tests, used differently.

"We've always been against any test that would prevent a child from moving on," said Angie Gallo, PTA legislative committee chair. "It should be used to inform instruction."

Gallo noted the federal Every Student Succeeds Act allows states to do away with testing for teacher evaluations, and said the PTA would like to see Florida move more in that direction.

The act also allows states to replace state tests with national assessments, noted Escambia County superintendent Malcolm Thomas, president of the state superintendents association. Currently, Florida students can replace their FSA 10th-grade scores with the SAT or ACT, but they must first take the FSA.

Thomas said his group would back a state move to let students take the SAT or ACT without ever sitting for the state assessment. He also called for any effort to tighten the testing window.

The No. 1 priority this session will be a "realistic" education budget that accounts for enrollment growth, Thomas and others said. But if lawmakers can improve the testing environment along the way, he said, that "would be great as well."

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

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