TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate took a critical step Wednesday toward temporarily suspending school grades in response to the outcry statewide among parents, teachers and superintendents who want a smoother transition as the state shifts to new standards and tests.
The Senate added a provision to its sweeping testing bill (SB 616) that would require an independent review of the new Florida Standards Assessments. The proposal says the results of this year's tests cannot be used for school grades or teacher evaluations until the review is complete.
"We will rely upon this year's assessments if and only if they have been deemed valid and reliable," former Senate President Don Gaetz said.
That wasn't the only change the Senate made to the testing bill. Senators also added a provision allowing school districts to start classes as early as Aug. 10.
Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said districts should have the flexibility to start earlier than is currently allowed.
But some senators disagreed, saying that the summer travel season was too important to Florida's economy to be cut short.
"Senators, save our summer," pleaded Sen. Darren Soto, a Democrat who represents the tourism mecca of Orlando. "There's so much about life you learn outside of a classroom."
The action in the Senate came on the same day that Pasco County announced plans to cut 18 local end-of-course exams for elementary students.
It followed the Orange and Seminole districts in taking this step.
The district would still use student performance results to evaluate teachers, superintendent Kurt Browning said. But state law doesn't require written tests to get that information, he added.
"We still are going to monitor kids' progress," assistant superintendent Vanessa Hilton said. "There are a variety of means to do it."
The broader Senate bill, which seeks to scale back the state testing requirements, is expected to win the support of the Senate today.
It remains unclear whether the House will follow along. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, has refused to pause any piece of Florida's school accountability system, and isn't likely to bend easily.
The language about the start date could help win support in the House. The lower chamber has a similar provision in its version of the testing bill (HB 7069).
Members of the state Senate have been torn on the issue of school grades for the past several weeks.
The language added Wednesday was meant to be a compromise with the parents, teachers and superintendents who have demanded a pause in the education accountability program while Florida transitions to new standards and tests.
But some members of the Senate said the amendment did not go far enough.
"It's not what your constituents are asking of you," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, pointing out that parents had grown even more adamant about a pause after technical glitches plagued last month's rollout of new Web-based exams.
Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat and high school teacher, suggested letting school districts use this year's exams for diagnostic purposes only.
"The overwhelming sentiment is that this test is not ready for prime time," he said.
His idea was quickly rejected by Republican lawmakers, who said it would signal to students that this year's tests were meaningless.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who serves as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said he believed the exams would ultimately be invalidated.
But Legg said he was confident the exams would withstand scrutiny.
"There are students who performed well, teachers who taught, and schools that will excel," he said. "We need a pathway to recognize them."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @kmcgrory.