Obama calls for less testing; education advocates look to Florida to follow

President Obama, pictured discussing education issues last year, has joined critics of excessive standardized testing in schools.
President Obama, pictured discussing education issues last year, has joined critics of excessive standardized testing in schools. The Associated Press

The White House, after years of criticism, has finally jumped on the too-much-testing bus.

Now, the question for advocates across Florida is whether state education leaders in Tallahassee will get on board.

President Barack Obama's weekend declaration that students should take fewer and better tests was welcomed by critics who say the current system goes too far – including Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who met with the president in the Oval Office on Monday to discuss how to fix it.

“You need some reasonable degree of testing and we’re really seeking a much smarter way of testing kids,” he said.

But it remained unclear how federal recommendations to ease the testing burden will shake out in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott’s department of education has stood by its testing requirements – despite pleas from the statewide superintendents association, school boards association, PTAs, teachers unions and civil rights groups.

“Now we can say at the national level we are being heard, and it’s a matter of whether our local officials, locally and statewide, are listening,” said Miami-Dade PTA President Joe Gebara. “In the state of Florida, I won’t hold my breath.”

State officials have pointed out that federal requirements that remain in place under the No Child Left Behind Law are a big part of the testing problem. The Florida Department of Education also highlighted that the state already has a testing cap in place, and that changes in state law helped cut back on required testing last year.

"We're proud of the fact that we've already taken some steps in our state," Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Collins said. “That’s something that’s ongoing; we’re always looking and listening and making changes as appropriate for our students.”

On Saturday, the Council of Great City Schools also released a two-year long study of testing in urban districts that found students spend up to 25 hours a year taking standardized tests – not including time spent practicing, which was not studied. From pre-k through 12th grade, students will take 112 tests, according to the report, which included data from Miami-Dade.

The report coincided with the release of a lengthy list of testing recommendations by the U.S. Department of Education, which included a call to scale back exams so that it only consumes 2 percent of the school year. Together, it all signaled a sharp change in tone from the Obama administration. The president even took to Facebook in a video message to say the pressure of tests has taken the “joy” out of teaching and learning.

“I want to fix that,” he said.

The recommendations call on states to give better tests that are fair for all students and to use test scores only as one of many factors when making high-stakes decisions, such as whether a student should be held back.

They also call on states not to issue tests solely to use the scores for teacher evaluations. Florida plans to use its standardized tests to issue school grades and in teacher evaluations.

But the federal recommendations are just that – recommendations. States like Florida can take them or leave them.

“It’s very much appreciated, but there has to be pressure directly to the governor's office and our legislators,” said Florida PTA President Mindy Haas. “It’s our states that have the ability to determine how much testing is happening and the validity of testing.”

Advocates across the state have called on Florida to temporarily suspend its testing accountability system after rolling out new exams last year that were plagued by technical glitches.

Fedrick Ingram, president of the Miami-Dade teacheres union vice president-elect of the state-wide Florida Education Association, said the federal shift is important. “It’s a different conversation now, because it’s not just us saying it. This is coming from the highest levels... We must push our state government to realize the same thing.”

Florida has taken some steps to lighten the testing load.

Last session, Scott signed a bill that permanently eliminated the 11th-grade English exam and removed a requirement that local school districts create exams for every subject not covered by a state assessment. The moves allowed Miami-Dade to cut more than 300 tests that students would have had to take.

The Legislature also set a 5 percent cap on any assessments that are federal-, state- or district-level. That's 40 hours maximum out of the 900-hour school year. (Principal- or teacher-driven assessments are exempt from that cap.)

"When the president is using the 2 percent cap, Florida has already done that. He’s a little late to the dance on this issue,” said Sen. John Legg, a Republican who chairs the education committee.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga