Florida Senate panel backs bill to overhaul students’ annual testing

The current bill, as written, does not appear to reduce testing for students.
Florida state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. answers a question from a reporter during a legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Florida state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. answers a question from a reporter during a legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP (2022) ]
Published Jan. 11, 2022|Updated Jan. 12, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis used the opening day of the 2022 legislative session to amplify his push to scale back on high-stakes testing in Florida schools, an issue that is expected to color the contours of education policy debates during the 60-day session.

“I am proposing the elimination of the FSA (Florida Standards Assessment) and replacing it with periodic progress monitoring,” DeSantis said in his annual State of the State address Tuesday. “This will lead to meaningful feedback for parents and teachers and will reduce the amount of time dedicated to testing, leaving more time for learning.”

Four hours later, the Senate Education Committee advanced a measure that would take steps to implement the governor’s vision. But specifics of the bill don’t meet DeSantis’ goals — at least not yet.

Related: Gov. Ron DeSantis State of the State address: ‘We were right and they were wrong’

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican, would make adjustments to the 2022-23 school year by putting in place a computer-based “progress monitoring” tool and a new standardized test for English language arts and math.

The state began emphasizing progress monitoring during the pandemic, when many students took classes remotely and officials wanted to ensure they did not fall behind.

Progress monitoring reports would come out in the fall, winter and spring, Diaz said. The results would be given to teachers within one week and parents within two weeks, in an effort to keep them better informed about students’ progress throughout the school year, he said.

“This will provide teachers a real opportunity to engage students and measure their benchmarks at the beginning of the year,” Diaz said.

The bill would not make changes to end-of-course exams in subjects such as algebra, biology and U.S history.

It also does not appear to reduce testing for students. When the governor first announced the proposal last year, he said the idea was to reduce testing in schools by 75 percent. As currently written, the legislation would add more testing.

Related: DeSantis calls for an end to most spring testing in Florida schools

“It is hard to see how testing time decreases based on the language of the bill,” said Cathy Boehme, a lobbyist with the Florida Education Association. “We would like to see where that goes.”

Wayne Bertsch, a government relations liaison for the Pasco County School District, agrees. He said that the bill “didn’t take anything away.”

Diaz said the bill remains a work in progress and that he has been working “hand in hand” with the Florida Department of Education, which is part of the DeSantis administration, in drafting the proposed changes to the state’s testing system.

Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said the department will continue to work with lawmakers to ensure the governor’s multi-year vision is executed throughout the legislative process. She said Diaz’s bill and a House companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, take “several critical steps” toward that goal.

DeSantis’ proposal aims to eliminate the FSA, set up a statewide progress monitoring tool, and create a new baseline for accountability in time for the 2022-23 school year.

Questions remain

Senate Education Committee vice chairperson Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, had several questions about the proposal during its first committee hearing.

In particular, he wondered how the proposal would impact teacher evaluations, students with special needs and districts that have limited resources to adjust to a computer-based “progress monitoring” tool.

“I do know that there are certain schools who have outdated computers. I know that there are some in my district for sure,” Jones said. “Is the department going to provide school districts with the technology and resources that they need to be in compliance with the direction we are moving in?”

Diaz said the education department would be able to work with the districts on that issue, potentially with the aid of federal grants.

Regarding how the proposal would impact teacher evaluations, which are based in part on student performance, Diaz said legislation would need to be passed to allow the education department to start putting those measures in place.

“It (the bill) doesn’t micromanage or dictate how we do teacher evaluation,” he said.

The education department would also be in charge of a bidding process that would pick a vendor to handle the computer-based progress monitoring tool.

“That is completely going to be something that is handled in the executive branch through the department,” Diaz said, when asked by Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat, about the selection process.

A welcomed testing overhaul

Although there were suggested changes to the proposal, lawmakers, parents and educators largely welcomed the spirit of the proposal.

“It creates the best of both worlds when it comes to assessment,” said David Struhs, the senior legislative director for the Foundation for Florida’s Future, founded by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

“You have a progress monitoring, diagnostic test that allows teachers to take the data and curtail and tailor their instruction to meet the needs of their students and you have an end-of-year summative assessment that allows for you as policymakers to be able to gauge the performance of Florida’s education system,” he said.

Struhs, however, recommend maintaining the school grading scale for the 2022-23 school year as the state transitions to a new accountability model.

“Additionally, add a provision that would allow for the gradual increase in the school grading scale over time, so that as students’ performance increases, so does our expectation,” he said.

Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar is open to the governor’s proposal, but urged him to listen to educators and parents as the measure moves forward.

“Now it is time to roll up our sleeves and make sure that we are addressing assessment in a way that promotes student learning and empowers teachers to meet the needs of every child,” he said.

Damaris Allen, with the Florida Parent Teacher Association, said she appreciates that the bill gives parents timely information about students’ progress and achievement, and opens up the possibility of reducing testing.

“At the same time, we are concerned that in the meantime, two additional assessments will be added to the testing calendar, given that Florida already administers far more state standardized tests than federally required,” Allen said.

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