Florida House, Senate leaders oppose new curriculum tests

Florida’s two top lawmakers have serious reservations about the assessments being created to test the new curriculum standards for hundreds of thousands of public-school students.

The concerns are so grave that Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford want Florida to back out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the national consortium crafting the exams, and develop its own program for testing students across the state.

“We cannot jeopardize fifteen years of education accountability reform by relying on PARCC to define a fundamental component of our accountability system,” they wrote in a letter Wednesday. “Our schools, teachers and families have worked too hard for too long for our system to collapse under the weight of an assessment system that is not yet developed, designed nor tested.”

State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, to whom the letter was addressed, would not say if he planned to act on the proposal. He did, however, say Gaetz and Weatherford had raised “critical issues that deserve serious consideration.”

Florida had been planning to adopt the PARCC exams in 2015. The assessments are being developed to test the Common Core Standards, a new national curriculum set to replace Florida’s state curriculum beginning in 2014.

Until now, most Florida leaders had been supportive of the national standards and accompanying tests.

“The goal of this new testing system is to eliminate ‘teaching to the test’ and instead … accurately measure whether our students are learning the skills they need to succeed in college and their careers,” Gov. Rick Scott wrote in an August 2012 statement.

But on Wednesday, seemingly out of the blue, Gaetz and Weatherford outlined “serious” concerns with the exams.

Among their gripes:

• The PARCC assessments require 20 days of testing for elementary, middle and high school students. That’s more time than it takes for students to complete the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests (FCAT).

• The PARCC assessments are performed on computers, and require schools to have at least one device for every two students. No school district in the state meets that requirement. There are also concerns about the minimum bandwidth requirements.

• The final cost of adopting the new tests has not yet been determined.

• The consortium has not yet released its final test security policies, leaving concerns about the safety of student data.

“It would be unacceptable to participate in national efforts that may take us backward and erode confidence in our accountability system and our trajectory of continued success,” Gaetz and Weatherford wrote in the letter.

Instead, they proposed the creation of a “Florida Plan” for assessments that could include the existing end-of-course exams or tests that have been established in other states.

The letter didn’t provide many additional details but asked Bennett to take a position as soon as possible.

Politics are likely at play. For months, the Tea Party has been blasting Florida Republicans for moving toward the Common Core and PARCC exams. The right-leaning Americans for Prosperity called the pitch from Gaetz and Weatherford “a victory for those who believe education should be controlled at a local level.”

“Taking control over creation of Florida’s assessment tests ensures that Floridians, who know what is best for Florida’s kids, will guide the curriculum taught in our schools,” Americans for Prosperity’s Florida director Slade O’Brien wrote in a statement Wednesday.

Laura Zorc, of Florida Parents Against Common Core, added that the next step would be for Florida leaders to recognize “the poor standards themselves.”

Any mention of the national standards was conspicuously missing from the Gaetz-Weatherford letter. Neither has spoken out against the Common Core, and the education department has said it is holding firm on that point.

Florida could still make the move to the national standards without the PARCC exams. State education officials were already planning to use the existing FCAT 2.0 exams during the transition.

In a statement, Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said: "The governor appreciates the Legislature's concerns and Commissioner Bennett will continue to make sure we implement standards that best prepare our students for college and careers."The praised lavished on the letter from Gaetz and Weatherford wasn’t limited to Republicans. Democrats were also supportive of the idea, albeit for different reasons.

“This gives us a good opportunity to look at all of the testing that’s going and really determine if it makes sense, or if it is too much,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the state teachers union, the Florida Education Association, said he would reserve judgment until he saw more details. “But this provides leaders an opportunity to do what they haven’t done before, and that is to have teachers involved in figuring out what this new Florida Plan will look like,” he said.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said hitting “the pause button” was a step in the right direction.

“There’s so much that’s not ready that folks are really coalescing around this idea that … maybe the state is not ready to bring in a new assessment for Common Core,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at