Four years after the Florida Legislature upped the ante on standardized tests in public schools over educators' objections, and months before controversial new tests are set to debut, lawmakers are finally acknowledging the state's testing scheme needs another look. That's good news for an out-of-whack accountability system that has lost the public's trust and cast a shadow over worthy new higher standards. Legislative leaders should learn from the rushed arrogance of the past and commit to work with those on the front lines — superintendents, school boards and teachers. The goal should be finding a fairer way to implement the new assessments tied to the Common Core-aligned Florida Standards so that they support, rather than detract from, student learning and teacher motivation.
For years, lawmakers have increasingly defaulted to standardized testing as the primary barometer of everything from school grades and student progress to teacher effectiveness — without fully acknowledging the shortfalls. A pair of Senate education committee meetings this month marked a sea change in Tallahassee. After weathering an election cycle where parents consistently complained about overtesting, even veteran legislative leaders agree it is time to reconsider the state's testing requirements and acknowledge they aren't even sure what state law actually requires. Senate Education chairman John Legg suggested perhaps the state has put too much weight on standardized test results when performing teacher evaluations. Those test results now count for half of the evaluation. And there is talk of whether the move to standardized end-of-course exams in every course — from physics to art classes — is even reasonable.
At the very least, lawmakers should agree to a longer implementation period for the Florida Standards Assessments, due to be administered in March. Those tests have not been field-tested in Florida, and teachers have not been sufficiently briefed on the tests' structure so they can best prepare students. Last year, lawmakers begrudgingly agreed to a one-year moratorium on consequences from this year's tests. But since then the Department of Education has been even slower than expected in producing testing information, further validating educators' arguments that districts should have up to three years to adapt to the new test scheme before high-stakes consequences are mandated.
What's been forgotten too often in Florida is that no amount of testing is going to improve student performance, and that the tests are tools to be used wisely. Republican legislative leaders appear to have heard the message. Now they should commit to finding a better system by working with those educators who know the classroom and the students best.