TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's littlest learners won't have to worry about some standardized tests this year, the state education department said Monday.
The announcement came after school systems, including Miami-Dade, ran into technical troubles administering the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading to students in kindergarten through second grade.
State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart promptly suspended the computer-based tests for the rest of the year.
While young students may still take some other standardized tests, critics of Florida's high-stakes assessment program claimed Monday's announcement as a victory
"This is a recognition that the statewide testing mandates have gone way too far," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the anti-testing group FairTest.
Testing has become a hot-button issue of late, with parents, teachers and school district leaders raising concerns about the number of standardized assessments students in Florida must take. Last month, the Lee County School Board approved a moratorium on all state-mandated tests -- a vote it later rescinded after learning the school district could lose millions in state funding.
The issue has also become a political flashpoint. Republican Gov. Rick Scott's re-election platform calls for a "thorough investigation of all standardized tests."
The FAIR exams are one small piece of Florida's testing tapestry. The computer-based tests are given three times annually, and are used to help teachers customize their lesson plans to meet their students' needs.
This year, the state made some changes to the testing technology -- a move that caused widespread computer glitches.
"It was a real challenge," said Gisela Feild, who oversees testing and data analysis for the Miami-Dade district. "Our IT staff spent hours on the phone with the Department of Education. There were nightly calls. There were just too many problems."
Adding to the controversy, a veteran teacher in Alachua County refused to give her students the FAIR tests, saying she and others classroom teachers were spending too much time on tests.
The state made its decision to suspend the assessments based on the technical glitches and input from superintendents, education department spokesman Joe Follick said.
Kindergarten teachers will still have to meet student screening requirements outlined in Florida law, Follick said. But for now, basic observations will suffice.
United Teachers of Dade President Fedrick Ingram said he was encouraged by the action.
"Anything that we can do to cut back the amount of required testing for kids is going to help, and I think this puts our schools in a better situation," Ingram said.
But Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho pointed out Florida school districts are under pressure to develop scores of new assessments, some of which will be tied teacher pay.
The state, he said, was only "scratching the surface of a much bigger issue."
Colleen Wood, founder of the public education advocacy group 50th No More, said she and other parents would continue to make noise.
"It's a good day when the Department of Education recognizes that any test is not working correctly," Wood said. "But they would be mistaken to think stopping FAIR is going to quiet the discontent of parents across the state."
Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report.