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  1. Florida Politics

Senate leaders propose fix for Florida's testing troubles

TALLAHASSEE — An influential lawmaker on Monday proposed what may signal a shift in Florida education policy and at least some relief for students, teachers and parents: Less, not more, testing.

The bill from Senate Education Chairman John Legg addresses growing concerns that Florida schoolchildren face too many state- and district-mandated exams. It would eliminate the requirement that all students take an end-of-course test in every class, with the results going toward teacher evaluations.

The proposal, which seems to have early support from key Senate leaders, would also:

•Limit state- and district-mandated testing to 45 hours, or 5 percent of a student's time in school. That would not include teacher-driven tests.

•Reduce the amount that student test results count toward teacher evaluations, from 50 percent to 40 percent.

•Allow districts to receive a waiver from state accountability rules if they have specific problems giving the new Florida Standards Assessments.

"This is what we are starting with," Legg, R-Trinity, said of the proposal, which he crafted with Sens. Don Gaetz and Bill Montford. "We have to start somewhere for a public discussion now."

While the Senate has taken the lead on testing, fixing the state's troubled accountability system is also a top priority for the Florida House.

State Rep. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican who chairs the House Education Choice and Innovation Subcommittee, said Legg's proposal contained "interesting ideas."

"It sounds to me, in concept, like something that is going to come up for discussion in the House," he said.

But the House will likely have some ideas of its own. Diaz, for example, said he would support limiting state- and district-mandated testing to an even smaller fraction of the time students spend at school.

Legg submitted his bill just days after several superintendents met with Gov. Rick Scott to express their concerns with the state's direction on testing and accountability. Scott also has asked the Florida Department of Education to investigate the issue.

The superintendents made five suggestions, many of which dovetail with Legg's proposal.

"The legislative priorities highlighted in this bill reflect not only the pervasive challenges faced by districts, but the solutions that have been articulated by teachers, superintendents and parents," said Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who attended the meeting.

Carvalho called the bill "a move in the right direction."

Union leaders felt similarly.

"Any movement in this direction is movement in the right direction," Florida Education Association vice president Joanne McCall said. "We'll see if it goes far enough and will make a difference in the lives of our members."

But some parent leaders had mixed feelings.

Cindy Hamilton, a parent activist from Orlando, says the proposals don't go far enough to reduce end-of-course testing. But she supports the idea of letting districts use the results for diagnostic purposes if they have technical problems implementing the new Florida Standards Assessments.

"Considering all of the issues that have happened in the past, that's a great piece of the legislation," she said, pointing out that computer servers have failed during past administration of statewide tests.

Legg made clear that his bill is a starting point. He said he expects to hear from parents, teachers, lawmakers and others with different ideas.

The key, he stressed, is to tackle the testing concerns that have captured Florida's education debate.

"We are trying to find the best solutions," he said.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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