TALLAHASSEE The start of the new year means the start of a herculean task for the state Education Department: choosing, and then deploying, the next generation of standardized tests.
The time frame is tight. But state education officials say they are on schedule to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, within 18 months.
"We are confident that we will have new assessments in place for the 2014-15 school year, and that the assessments will meet the needs of Florida's students and teachers," state Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick said.
Florida is phasing out the FCAT as schools statewide transition to the new education benchmarks known as the Common Core State Standards.
The standards were developed by the National Governors Association and have been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. They emphasize critical thinking and analysis, and are more rigorous than Florida's previous standards.
To test the new benchmarks, Florida had planned to use exams being created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
But in September, Gov. Rick Scott raised concerns about the cost and technology requirements, and directed the state Education Department to consider other options.
A call for proposals went out in October.
Five companies are now competing for the state testing contract, including testing giants Pearson, ACT and CTB/McGraw-Hill.
The American Institutes for Research is also in the running, as is the Pennsylvania testing company McCann Associates.
PARCC did not submit a proposal because it is funded by federal Race to the Top money, which cannot be used to win state contracts, PARCC spokeswoman Lesley Muldoon said.
Still, PARCC provided state education officials with 51 pages of general information on its exams.
"We encourage you to continue to consider PARCC as an assessment system option as you review responses (to the bid solicitation)," PARCC governing board chairman Mitchell Chester wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to the Florida Department of Education.
Follick, the Department of Education spokesman, said PARCC would not be considered because it did not submit a formal application.
State education officials plan to select a testing vendor by the end of March.
That timeline has some stakeholders concerned. The Florida Association of District School Superintendents has suggested Florida take three years to transition to new standards and exams.
"It's obvious to superintendents that we need to slow down and do this right," said state Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the superintendents organization.
Colleen Wood, of 50th No More, a grass roots Florida parents group, said she worries about the implications on school grades and teacher evaluations.
"To field test an entire new assessment on the entire state at once, and have consequences tied to the test, does not seem wise, fair or smart," she said.
The focus on exams suggests that the new standards are here to stay.
Last year, tea party groups and conservative parents called upon the Education Department to dump the benchmarks, saying they represented a federal overreach.
Hundreds of people weighed in on the issue during a series of public hearings in the fall. The Education Department is compiling and analyzing those remarks, along with thousands of public comments submitted through the department's website.
Florida is unlikely to shelve the standards. The Education Department may, however, revise some of the individual benchmarks and give them a new name.