Education

New Florida committee will tackle school testing controversies

Language arts students at Carver Middle School in Miami-Dade County prepare for the state assessments. Across Florida, parents are pushing back on standardized tests. Some say schoolchildren are taking too many exams. Others have concerns about the quality of the tests, and the way the results are being used.
Language arts students at Carver Middle School in Miami-Dade County prepare for the state assessments. Across Florida, parents are pushing back on standardized tests. Some say schoolchildren are taking too many exams. Others have concerns about the quality of the tests, and the way the results are being used. The Miami Herald

Florida’s Department of Education is launching an investigation into how many tests kids take and why, along with a new committee that will review, among other things, implementation of Florida’s new Common Core-like standards.

The move — promised by Gov. Rick Scott during his election campaign — is a recognition of the growing backlash across the state and country against the frequency and high stakes of testing.

Advocates for fewer tests are paying close attention to who gets picked for what will be known as the Keep Florida Learning committee.

The department has promised an 11-member committee that reflects “diverse views and opinions,” and to include teachers, elected officials, higher education representatives and regular citizens.

But critics are already warning that the committee is too small to reflect the myriad viewpoints surrounding testing policies. They also are concerned that politics will intrude. With former Gov. Jeb Bush, an outspoken Common Core champion, considering a presidential bid in 2016, the debate over testing is likely to only get more attention in the coming year.

“The quality of appointments will be critical to the quality of work that the committee does,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, an anti-testing group. “We are looking and pushing for a diverse committee that will reflect the views of all major stakeholders in Florida, and not just more of the same from Tallahassee.”

In Miami-Dade, parents who are critical of high-stakes tests are encouraging like-minded activists to flood the state with applications, said Suzette Lopez. She’s the parent of two children in public school and helps manage the Opt-Out Miami-Dade Facebook page, where parents discuss whether and how to pull their kids out of testing.

Lopez hopes that tactic will force the state to expand the committee — or to at least make sure there is genuine two-way conversation. More members, she said, also would better reflect the state’s diversity.

“It’s a small group of people that are going to be making all these decisions,” she said. “How do they expect one or two parents to represent all those communities and have a voice for all of those communities? That’s impossible.”

The reasons for the current anti-testing sentiment are plenty, much of it politically inspired.

Many critics on the right contend the tests are an overreach by the federal government, only used to mine data about kids. Some parents say their children get stressed out because test scores are used in high-stakes decisions like being held back a grade. Teachers also have concerns, saying the number of tests being administered eats into learning time.

Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho applauded the new committee as a “genuine and honest” move by Scott and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

Carvalho has been an persistent critic of the state’s approach, calling for a pause in accountability measures as Florida transitions to new standardized tests that are expected to be much harder.

But in a move that perhaps signals a different approach, the district and the state recently paired up in a fight against the U.S. Department of Education over testing students who are in their first year of learning English — a fight Florida won.

“I think the commissioner and more and more elected officials in Tallahassee recognize the need to engage in this conversation,” Carvalho said. “It’s a recognition that the accountability system has gone too far, too fast. And unfortunately, we’re experiencing the unintended consequences of that.”

Applications to join Keep Florida Learning can be found on the Florida Department of Education website, www.FLDOE.org. They are due by Jan. 31. Members will be announced in February and the first meeting will be a conference call in March.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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