Seeking to ease the pressure on schoolchildren — and quell the growing backlash from parents — the Florida House voted unanimously Wednesday to scale back testing in public schools.
The proposal (HB 7069) eliminates an 11th-grade English test and a requirement that local school districts create tests in every subject not covered by the new Florida Standards Assessment. It also allows the school year to begin as early as Aug. 10.
“With the passage of this legislation, we have addressed legitimate concerns about student testing while maintaining a strong accountability system that promotes quality instruction in the classroom,” said House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake.
The House declined, however, to suspend school grades during the transition to new standards and assessments, as superintendents, teachers and parents had requested.
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Republican lawmakers also rejected a proposed amendment that would have given students the option to choose pencil-and-paper exams until school districts are “ready for the successful deployment of online assessments.” Parents had clamored for the change as backup plan, but the majority of lawmakers wanted to press forward with online testing.
Some Democrats, though they voted in favor of the overall bill, were disappointed in the final legislation that passed.
“We had an opportunity to do more and we failed to do that,” said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville.
Despite the 115-0 vote, the final chapter of the Florida testing debate has yet to be written. The Senate is considering its own plan to scale back testing (SB 616) — and it contains significant differences from the House version.
The Senate bill caps the amount of time students can spend on state-mandated tests at 5 percent of the total time they spend in school. It also allows school districts to be exempt from school grades this year, but only if they can prove they had technical problems with the new online exams.
“The relief valve is very important to a lot of senators,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity.
The Senate plan makes no change to the school start date. Legg said he believed that issue should be handled separately.
The debate in both chambers represents a departure from past years, when lawmakers were far more likely to add exams to the Florida’s education accountability program than eliminate them.
In recent months, however, parents across the state have loudly complained about the number of mandatory tests.
Further fueling their anger: the software problems and cyber attack that plagued this month’s roll out of the new Florida Standards Assessment.
Leaders in the House said their proposal was intended to give some relief to students. It would also repeal the required administration of a college-readiness exam known as PERT, and eliminate some mid-term assessments for struggling students.
But Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall said the said the bill didn’t go “deep enough or far enough to make a difference in the lives of children.”
She pinned some of the blame on politics.
“They are not going to dismantle the accountability system because that is Jeb’s legacy,” she said, referring to former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who has all but announced he is running for president in 2016.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said the proposal was not intended to protect the former governor.
“We’re trying to pass good public policy,” he said.
Crisafulli said he had not spoken with Bush on the testing proposal, but said representatives from Bush’s non-profit Foundation for Florida’s Future had visited with House leaders on the issue.
The foundation said its support of the bill had nothing to do with the 2016 presidential race.
“This is a big step toward fewer and better tests that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” executive director Patricia Levesque said in a statement. “Florida is showing it’s possible to accomplish this goal while keeping the promise of a high-quality education we make to students.”
Herald/Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.