The pandemic has wreaked untold havoc on the classroom experience. Tens of thousands of Florida students are still learning remotely from home, harried parents are doubling as makeshift teachers and hordes of children are falling further behind because of the lack of academic structure. That’s why state legislators are right to propose that Florida’s annual testing not be punitive to students and schools in the middle of this public health emergency.
SB 886, filed by Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Ft. Lauderdale, would remove sanctions or penalties against students and schools who underperform during the 2020-2021 school year. The legislation recognizes the upheaval caused by the public health precautions in shutting down much of society to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Test scores that determine whether a third-grader could move on or a high schooler could graduate, or whether schools would face consequences from a poor annual rating, would be set aside for the year. The test results would be used instead as a barometer to measure how students and school districts fared during the pandemic.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Joe Gruters of Sarasota, said last week he supported the bill. In an encouraging sign the legislation is a bipartisan priority, the measure is scheduled to be heard in Gruter’s committee today, on the first day of this year’s legislative session.
This is a common-sense approach that balances the need for academic accountability with the reality of these disruptive times. School board members, superintendents and parents have lobbied lawmakers for a reprieve. Students who have returned to brick-and-mortar classrooms have nonetheless faced new routines in the school day. Social distancing has changed interactions in the classroom. And students learning remotely have dealt with problems of their own, from technological challenges to a sense of being lost in a virtual classroom with no ready support.
The bill serves a broad public benefit to educators and families alike by using test results as a gauge for moving forward without compounding the punishment of a public health crisis. If anything, the results would be another metric for measuring how the pandemic affected Florida’s education system. While in-home learning provided a safer option for many families, the hybrid attendance model also robbed students of academic support, leaving many to fall even further behind. The tests could help the school districts focus their efforts in the coming year as they strive to make up for lost time. And students and schools wouldn’t be punished for pandemic-related achievement gaps that likely will fall the hardest on poor and minority communities.
The bill aligns with the policy of the Biden administration, which requires annual testing this year but is open to waivers in how states use the results. “It is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing,” Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, wrote in a letter to state education chiefs last month.
This is a sensible middle ground between competing calls to hold firm on school accountability and to scrap testing this year entirely. The state will still avail itself of valuable data without punishing students and schools who suffered through this disruption through no fault of their own. Lawmakers should support this bill and the state Department of Education should faithfully follow its intent.
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