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Top Florida lawmakers working on changes that would reduce students' testing load

Florida lawmakers are looking for ways to change how students are tested.
Florida lawmakers are looking for ways to change how students are tested.
Published Sep. 27, 2015

Florida students might not have to take as many tests if two of the state's most powerful lawmakers have their way.

The chairmen of the state Senate's two education-related committees are drafting bills that would allow the system to substitute Florida Standards Assessments scores with results from other exams that also measure knowledge of state standards, and that students already may be taking in addition to the FSA.

Their idea is to expand on existing state rules that allow replacement tests — rules, for example, that let high school students use their SAT or ACT scores for the FSA language arts graduation requirement, or that allow elementary schools to use the Stanford Achievement Test instead of the FSA to decide whether a third-grader can go to fourth grade.

The lawmakers say they don't seek to get rid of the FSA, as some school boards have proposed, but rather to supplement it with local testing flexibility.

The future of Florida's education accountability program could rest in the balance, said Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who finds it wasteful to require students to take the FSA in a subject area where they have strong scores on Advanced Placement, industry certification and other tests.

"If we can't pass a bill that says that … that's the point at which we will lose the debate," Gaetz said, noting confidence in the system already is precarious.

Doubts have grown since a recent validity study stated this spring's test scores were "suspect" and administration of the tests was problematic in "just about every aspect." On Friday, the state superintendents association called for a complete review of the accountability system, saying school district leaders had lost confidence in it.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, said he doesn't intend to spend more time looking back. He instead plans to explore different ways to tackle some of the testing concerns he's heard. One primary area he will have the committee look into is setting "concordant scores" for selected tests that could stand in the place of the FSAs.

Any substitute tests would have to align with Florida's academic standards to even be considered, Legg said. He said they also must provide enough data for the state's accountability system, which uses student scores to help grade schools, rate teachers and measure other areas.

"I want to create other options, especially in high school," Legg said.

Juniors at Gulf High School, which has Pasco County's highest AP test passing rate, welcomed any opportunity to lessen their testing load.

Several said the state's FSA end-of-course exams were too easy, as they targeted the mainstream curriculum and not the advanced work these students studied.

As a result, said 16-year-old Demi Teljigovic, taking the FSA was "wasting time" that could be better spent learning and preparing for the credit-earning AP and other tests that matter.

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Yes, the students supported taking exams.

"They need something to measure our skills," said Stephen Engler, 16.

"Tests aren't bad," added Joshua Roche, also 16. "Just in moderation."

Tests that don't help them monitor their progress, or give them adequate feedback, should go away, they said, fully supporting the senators' ideas. But accomplishing that task could prove complicated, they said.

After all, they noted, they often take AP exams after their state end-of-course exams and before their teacher-written finals. The AP results come in the middle of summer. That's a long way to go before knowing how you did and what your grade is.

Some suggested taking an alternate test instead of the state exam, keeping the teacher final because the teacher knows them and will use the results best. Others liked the idea of taking the state exam, providing it was revamped to reflect their course level, and doing away with the teacher's test.

Gulf High principal Kim Davis said she understood her students' frustrations. They're stressed, she said, and tested to death, and they deserve some relief.

"If they do come up with a concordant score, I think that could work," Davis said, although test scheduling logistics could prove challenging. "I don't think there's a perfect answer."

That's true, said Brad Carl, associate director of the University of Wisconsin's Value-Added Research Center.

"Fundamentally, the issue at hand is, unfortunately there is no single test that does all of the things well that we want a test to do," he said.

Some tests provide data that state leaders like for comparison purposes. Finding ones that match state standards and compare to state tests can be difficult, he explained.

And those often differ from tests like the ones the students are talking about, that give them and their teachers meaningful feedback for learning, Carl added.

As a result, he said, reducing the testing load could mean missing out on some of the expected uses. He suggested state leaders might need to identify the things they want the assessment system to do, such as measure achievement gaps or evaluate teachers, and then map out how to get there.

"There is no easy fix to this," Carl said. "Pretty much every state at some level is wrestling with these exact same questions."

Another potential wrinkle for Florida is the deep divide between the Senate and House. Their opposite reactions to the validity study — mocking in the Senate, accepting in the House — illustrate the point.

House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen said his priority for 2016 will not be alternate tests, but rather creating a pencil-and-paper option for schools that don't have enough computers to run testing efficiently while still conducting classes.

Still, Fresen left room for consideration of the ideas that Gaetz and Legg have floated.

As long as a person could compare the results of a third-grader in Brevard County with one in Miami-Dade, he said, "I'm not test vendor specific."

That reaction heartened Seminole County School Board Chairwoman Tina Calderone, who also heads the Central Florida Public School Boards Coalition.

"At the end of the day, we're going to stand behind what we said. We want a test that is valid, reliable and respects instructional time," said Calderone, whose district spearheaded the "Seminole Solution," a proposal to move to national tests.

"Really we were asking to open discussion," she said. "The good news is, we're having the discussion. Nobody would have discussed this last year."

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

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