Education

Florida Senate panel votes to scale back testing

A plan to scale back testing in Florida schools cleared its first hurdle in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, winning the approval of the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former schools superintendent, said the bill would “place a lid on too much testing.”

But the vote did little to satisfy parent and teacher groups, who say state lawmakers need to take more dramatic action — especially in light of this week’s problem-plagued rollout of the new Florida Standards Assessments.

“What’s happening in public schools is criminal, and this bill doesn’t do much to help our kids,” said Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall.

The debate in Tallahassee comes in response to growing concerns over Florida’s high-stakes testing program.

The backlash reached a new crescendo this week when the state debuted new online exams. Students across the state had trouble logging on, leading the state’s largest school districts to suspend testing for several days.

On Wednesday, state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said she was confident the software problems had been resolved.

Miami-Dade and Broward plan to resume online testing Thursday.

The Senate testing proposal (SB 616) aims to ease the burden on students, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said.

It removes a requirement that school districts create exams in all subjects not already covered by a statewide assessment and caps the total number of hours students can spend on standardized tests.

The bill also reduces the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation that is based on student tests performance from 50 to 33 percent.

What’s more, it would allow school systems that had technical problems with the 2014-15 assessments to not be penalized for the results.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, called the proposal “a very bold step to put guardrails on testing.”

“We are going to — for the first time in a long time — change the way we do business with regards to assessments within our school system,” he said.

But the four Democrats on the panel voted against the bill, saying lawmakers needed more time to address the problem.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, tried to amend the proposal so it would suspend testing for one year.

His suggestion won the support of Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

“In light of the fact that the implementation of [the FSA] across this state has been nothing short of a disaster, I think it makes sense to suspend it for a year until we can properly study it,” he said.

But the proposed amendment failed — as did another proposed amendment by Bullard to make pencil-and-paper tests available to all students.

The debate over testing is likely to dominate the beginning of the 2015 legislative session. The House Education Committee will consider a similar bill Thursday morning.

Parents, educators and advocates say they plan to continue giving input.

“There are some pieces of the bill we like,” said Dawn Steward, who sits on the Florida PTA legislative committee. “But there’s a lot of work to do yet.”

Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said lawmakers should “think even bolder.”

“To me we are tweaking the same structure we have,” Runcie said. “My belief is that as we move forward in this state, we need to start a conversation about fundamentally changing the structure of how we do assessments.”

His suggestion: Instead of testing every student, Florida should test a sample of kids in each grade level.

“It would reduce the amount of testing by more than 50 percent,” Runcie said. “And it would allow us to reinvest that money in developing teachers and hiring high-quality teachers throughout the state.”

Herald/Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com. 

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