Florida legislators under pressure to alter school testing

Author: Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – For nearly 2 million Florida public school students, the next few weeks could be a crucial moment in their education.

The state is undertaking one of the biggest changes in its classrooms since former Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through his signature A+ school grading system nearly 16 years ago.

Students will switch this spring to a new test based largely on Common Core standards and it’s a test that most will do on a computer instead of paper.

What happens before the end of the school year could go a long way in determining whether the Florida Legislature enacts sweeping changes to the current system. The 60-day annual session starts Tuesday.

A backlash against the state’s use of standardized testing has been building up as school districts and even some Republican legislators say it’s time for an overhaul.

Gov. Rick Scott has already acknowledged the testing backlash, which included a southwest Florida school district briefly discarding state-mandated tests last fall. Just this week, he suspended an 11th grade standardized test scheduled this spring.

But it’s not clear how far that Scott and the GOP-controlled Legislature will go beyond that.

Florida expanded the use of standardized testing under Bush’s plan to grade schools. The A to F grades were used to offer rewards and impose sanctions on schools. Students who failed the tests, which up until this year were known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or FCAT, could be held back in third grade or, in high school, not allowed to graduate.

The number of tests has grown since 1999 as end of course exams were added in various subjects. The tests also took on more importance as they became part of the measurements used to evaluate teachers. But the switch to new standards and the new Florida Standards Assessment based on the controversial Common Core standards has sparked opposition from some parents and teachers statewide.

It’s also caused school officials and superintendents to concede the state is requiring school children to take too many tests overall.

“There is considerable over-testing that is robbing precious time from teaching,” said Miami-Dade schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

The teacher union – the Florida Education Association – says the state should administer the new tests this year but wants the Legislature to exempt students and teachers from any sanctions related to the test.

Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity and chairman of the Senate education committee, doesn’t agree, saying it would only delay the “same conversation” school officials and legislators are having.

But he also said such a move would penalize those districts and schools that have prepared for the new tests.

“We do have schools that are ready,” Legg said. “What do we say to them? We basically say ‘Hey, this was just a good head fake, this really didn’t matter this year.'”

Legg has crafted a bill that would limit on how many hours students could spend on state-mandated tests. But instead of granting a blanket waiver, he would allow school districts to apply for a one-time break this year. The school districts would forfeit any extra money they normally get for schools that earn top grades.

Other bills, however, go further.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and former school superintendent, has a proposal to limit end-of-course exams and give school districts and students a two-year break from sanctions. Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, has filed a bill that would let parents opt their children out of standardized tests.

Some parents and teachers say the state should junk high-stakes tests altogether and instead use the Scholastic Aptitude Test and other exams as a way to measure high school students’ performance.

“It’s time to put the brakes on high-stakes testing and it’s time to consider other alternatives,” David Freeland, a St. Lucie County high school testing coordinator, pleaded earlier this month to state lawmakers.

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