Right move on school tests in Florida | Editorial
Now focus on addressing achievement gaps from a chaotic year
A classroom with socially distanced desks is shown at Hollywood Park Elementary on Oct. 6, 2020.
A classroom with socially distanced desks is shown at Hollywood Park Elementary on Oct. 6, 2020. [ SUSAN STOCKER / SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL | South Florida Sun Sentinel ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Apr. 13
Updated Apr. 13

The pandemic wreaked havoc on few institutions more than the school system. That’s why it was smart that Florida granted schools, students and parents some much-needed relief from the punitive impact of high-stakes testing. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran should be commended for listening to educators and parents, and all sides should use this opportunity to address the achievement gaps from a chaotic year.

Corcoran issued a seven-page order Friday authorizing school districts and charter schools to waive state testing requirements for spring 2021 high school graduates who have otherwise demonstrated their qualification for a diploma. He gave graduating seniors until December to earn a score making them eligible for a Bright Futures scholarship, and provided a way for them to show they tried but could not complete the required community service hours.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Jeffrey S. Solochek reported, the order further gave districts the power to make decisions on grade promotion and passing course grades without considering state exam results. That would allow third-graders to advance regardless of their Florida Standards Assessment reading result. And districts won’t have to count end-of-course exams such as biology and U.S. history as 30 percent of students’ course grades.

The commissioner made sound use of his discretion, balancing the need for accountability with the practical fallout from the upheaval this school year. Corcoran made clear he wanted students to sit for the Florida Standards Assessments and end-of-course exams, even as parents questioned the safety of testing sites and the fairness of exams after a year of hybrid learning. This order accommodates the legitimate concerns on both sides, allowing test results to guide academic interventions over the coming year without penalizing students or schools for a public health crises not theirs in the making.

School districts need to reciprocate this exercise in good faith by using the test scores as a road map for getting under-performing students and schools back on track. Rather than treat the order merely as a reprieve, districts should use the scores to diagnose weaknesses in the classroom and in student performance. Parents and teachers have already blamed remote learning and distancing practices in traditional classrooms for lagging performance in a host of areas, from reading and comprehension to math and language skills. State lawmakers in both parties — who joined the push to ensure that this year’s scores would not be punitive — need to follow through with the resources to help struggling districts and school children make up for lost ground.

Districts also need to be — as public schools chancellor Jacob Oliva insisted — “surgical” rather than sweeping in applying this flexibility. But Corcoran is right that local school districts, in partnership with parents, “are in the best position” to gauge the progress of students. The order also allows districts to use school grades if they anticipate that a school has improved enough to remove it from state oversight and turnaround requirements. That should be a motivating force.

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego, who leads the state superintendents association, rightly praised the state for working with school districts, families and teachers. Lawmakers sent the right signal, too, about the need for a temporary hiatus from high-stakes testing. Given how aggressively Tallahassee has moved in recent years to preempt local control, this was a welcome display of collaboration and practicality.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.