Proposal would give students alternatives to controversial statewide test

A student at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg takes a state standardized test. [Times file photo, 2004]

A student at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg takes a state standardized test. [Times file photo, 2004]
Published Jan. 7, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Although Florida lawmakers don't plan to revamp the beleaguered Florida Standards Assessments this session, they're likely to consider a related proposal to let students take other standardized tests — like the ACT or SAT — instead.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, this week filed a highly anticipated plan to let students make use of "rigorous alternative assessment options" in lieu of taking the controversial FSA, which had a rocky debut last year that fueled a mounting resistance to standardized tests and high-stakes exams.

"The FSA has been, at best, a mixed bag," Gaetz told the Times/Herald last month, as he was drafting his proposal. "The implementation problems associated with FSA have eroded the public's confidence in the result. The fact that the FSA was developed by an entity that is not well known and is therefore not well-respected by the public has had a negative consequence."

Gaetz's plan would allow parents and students to choose from a variety of national name-brand assessments that measure students' knowledge on given subjects. The options he puts on the table include various ACT exams for students in third grade through high school, and also for high-schoolers: the pre-SAT, SAT, Advanced Placement tests and industry certification exams, among others.

It's unclear yet how well Gaetz's bill will be received. At least one Democrat is on board, and other lawmakers from both parties have said they're interested in the concept.

"It is certainly worthwhile, and it is an appropriate step especially in terms of the recent history of the FSA and the difficulties we've had," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who also works as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "Florida has embraced the idea of choice, so why not give parents and students a choice?"

Gaetz said Thursday he is talking with "influential members of the House" to also get it considered there, possibly through a committee bill.

The bill (SB 1360) calls for implementing the use of alternative assessments as early as next school year. School boards throughout the state would have the power to choose which options to make available in each district, but the FSA would continue to be the uniform option statewide, Gaetz said.

Students could also pass subject-specific exams — such as SAT or Advanced Placement tests — and count them toward earning course credits for graduation and replacing end-of-course exams.

If it becomes law, the proposal requires the state Board of Education and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to adopt and implement rules reflecting the changes starting this spring — including factoring the alternative assessments into school grading formulas and other benchmarks where FSA results already play a role.

Stewart expressed initial opposition to the plan Wednesday, because national standardized tests aren't aligned with Florida Standards — the state's version of Common Core — which the FSA is designed to measure.

"I think if there were an alternate that were provided, it puts us in a bad spot," Stewart told reporters after the state Board of Education meeting. "Our assessment has to be aligned to what's being taught."

Montford added that another consequence if the proposal is enacted would be that the state could no longer compare districts, schools or even classes across Florida, because students would be taking advantage of different alternatives instead of taking one uniform test.

"I'm willing to forgo that comparison because I believe that the students, parents, teachers and schools should have that choice," Montford said.

Critics of Florida's standardized testing system say they are open to Gaetz's plan, but they said it doesn't go far enough to ease their concerns about over-testing because there are still consequences on schools and teachers for students' exam performance.

"I think the idea of alternative assessments, especially ones that are tried and true and have been fully vetted are a good idea," said Suzette Lopez, a leader of Opt Out Miami-Dade. "The problem is the complete system. ... It looks like a pacifier bill if all the components of the accountability system are not looked at together."

Gaetz said he favors choice, not doing away with the accountability system.

"It's not going to be what the anti-assessment people want," Gaetz acknowledged. "This bill is not an answer to those who say, 'let's take down the goal posts and not measure progress at all.' "

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark.