Bill to address Florida testing concerns headed to Gov. Rick Scott

"To me, that was the one education bill we needed to resolve this year," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity.
"To me, that was the one education bill we needed to resolve this year," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity.
Published Apr. 10, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — A proposal that would reduce the testing requirements for Florida schoolchildren — and delay the release of school grades until an independent agency reviews the new assessments — is headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk.

The Florida House passed the high-profile bill (HB 7069) in a 105-6 vote on Thursday.

It is one of only a handful of legislative proposals to win support this session in both the House and Senate. The two chambers are gridlocked over a plan to expand health care coverage and have failed to find consensus on most other issues.

The unexpected agreement Thursday came just days before students statewide will resume online testing.

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego, who once served as K-12 chancellor, praised the Legislature for giving more flexibility to districts in terms of the tests they offer and the way they organize their calendars.

"I feel like we've made a lot of progress," Grego said. "It's encouraging that folks listened."

But Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning had lingering concerns.

"I wish there had been a more definitive approach to withholding school grades until we get everything sorted out," he said, raising hopes that the independent review would bring useful information.

Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the final product a "reasonable approach" to addressing parent and teacher concerns over the new Florida Standards Assessments, which have so far been plagued by technical problems.

"It provides the opportunity to press the pause button and seek a higher level of verification," Carvalho said. "I think this is actually holding accountability accountable."

Scott told the Times/Herald he had not yet seen the bill. Earlier this year, he signed an executive order temporarily eliminating an 11th-grade English test.

HB 7069 has been among the most closely watched of the 2015 legislative session. It was drafted in response to parent demands that the state testing program be scaled back.

Florida lawmakers spent weeks debating which exams to ax — and how to use this year's scores.

Parents, teachers and superintendents had asked that the results be used for diagnostic purposes only, and that no school grades be issued in 2015. But many Republicans were reluctant to even tinker with the education accountability system created by former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is likely to run for president in 2016.

The final version of the bill permanently eliminates the 11th-grade English test, makes the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test optional, and prohibits students from spending more than 5 percent of their total classroom hours on state-mandated exams.

In addition, the proposal:

• Allows school to start as early as Aug. 10.

• Removes a requirement that school systems give final exams in every subject not covered by state tests.

• Reduces the amount that student test scores must count toward teacher evaluations.

To address lingering concerns about last month's testing meltdown, the Senate added a provision requiring an independent review of the Florida Standards Assessments. Until the review is finished, the test results cannot be used for making high-stakes decisions, such as whether third-grade students can be promoted to the fourth grade and merit pay for teachers. School grades are also on hold until the review is completed.

Observers had questioned whether the conservative House would go along with the additions. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, repeatedly said he would not retreat from Florida's A-F school grading system.

After Thursday's vote, Crisafulli said the bill did not "take away accountability."

"We're always open to massaging those policies, and that what's taking place in this bill," he said.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said he was pleased the bill won the support of the House.

"To me, that was the one education bill we needed to resolve this year," Legg said. "It was a bill that addressed the issues we needed to address."

Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush's nonprofit Foundation for Florida's Future, said the Legislature had proved its commitment to student learning.

"Florida lawmakers have shown it's possible to achieve fewer, better tests while continuing to measure student success," she said.

But Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said lawmakers had missed the mark.

"It doesn't hold students, schools or teachers harmless from the effects of a test that no one has seen," she said. "It really did not address what parents and students have been raising great and valid concerns about."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at Follow @kmcgrory.