Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to distance Florida from standardized testing marks a welcome, new approach for boosting student achievement and school accountability. By examining academic performance more in real-time, the state could have a better grip on the strengths and weaknesses of individual schools and a nimbler strategy for closing the gaps. And in this divisive political era, the change could also broaden the consensus on public education.
DeSantis announced the plan during news conferences in Clearwater and Miami, proposing to replace several annual exams with shorter “progress monitoring” tests tailored to individual students given throughout the school year. The governor said the change would reduce testing in the schools by 75 percent, while simultaneously enabling students and teachers to more timely adjust their academic efforts as needed. The switch would apply to the basic Florida Standards Assessments exams given for language arts and math, but not for end-of-course exams in subjects such as algebra, U.S. history and biology.
On an immediate level, the proposal responds to years of criticisms by educators and parents that the state’s focus on high-stakes testing was a waste of valuable class time and a one-size approach that poorly served a large, diverse state. The reaction to the governor’s announcement Tuesday was mostly positive across the board. School superintendents said the change would provide them a better barometer for assessing their performance. Parents and lawmakers praised the idea of redirecting attention from testing to learning. And Sarah Painter, Florida’s Teacher of the Year, who works at Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater, declared “it’s exactly what we teachers have been asking for” — data in real-time when it matters rather than after-the-fact.
Though the assessments would go away, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran underscored that other elements of Florida’s school accountability system would remain in place, including school grades, turnaround plans for struggling schools and teacher evaluations based in-part on student performance. Key lawmakers were generally supportive, though they insisted that any change would have to promote high standards, effective tracking of student achievement and school accountability.
DeSantis said he will make the plan a top priority when the legislative session begins in January. So the details matter. How will the state collect data used for school grades and teacher evaluations? What’s to keep the three assessments in the fall, winter and spring from becoming testing behemoths themselves? How will the state address gaps in equity and achievement? What role will superintendents and locally-elected school boards play in fashioning any change through the Legislature, and from there, in ensuring it stays on track?
DeSantis, who faces reelection next year, has every interest in crafting a reform that works and that draws bipartisan appeal. He’ll need to reach out to Democrats, teachers and local school officials as his proposal gets massaged next session. Done right, this change could improve the learning experience when students need it most. It could force administrators to react more quickly to evolving campus needs. And for a governor and the largest school districts that fought over COVID masking requirements, this proposal could become a focal point for uniting on education policy. The concept seems sound; the potential exciting. Now it’s time to fill in the blanks.
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