State Politics

Florida lawmakers seek reforms to tests, tests and more tests

In just a couple of weeks, Florida K-12 schools will begin the annual grueling three-month stretch of administering mandatory statewide student assessments.

But next year, those tests might not happen until the end of the school year, if lawmakers pass a proposal this spring to reform Florida’s lengthy testing schedule.

Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores said lawmakers have “heard loud and clear from parents, from teachers, from students” about “over-testing and the over-emphasis of testing,” so that’s why she and Republican Reps. Manny Diaz Jr., of Hialeah, and Chris Sprowls, of Palm Harbor, want to shift all assessment tests to the final three weeks of the school year, starting in 2017-18.

They hope their plan — the “Fewer, Better Tests” bill — will reduce the stress and anxiety that teachers, parents and students grapple with during spring testing time.

“Seeing firsthand the angst and all the scrambling, the biggest impact that can be had is pushing back the calendar,” Diaz told the Herald/Times.

The legislation (SB 926/HB 773) formally unveiled Wednesday, does not eliminate any standardized test, but lawmakers and stakeholders said it could reduce the number of local tests that school districts impose because they don’t get state test results back fast enough to quickly assess student progress.

“It’s about really putting some common sense into our whole testing situation overall,” said Diaz, the House’s K-12 education budget chairman this year, who is a former high school teacher and administrator in Miami-Dade Public Schools and now chief operating officer at Doral College.

Besides shifting all testing to the end of the school year, the legislation would require results from the Florida Standards Assessments to be returned to teachers within one week so teachers can actually have time to act on them. And it would require a more understandable report be sent to parents of what each student’s results mean, so they, too, can take steps to help their child.

Flores said that “somehow the state of Florida went off the path when we had this really great idea on the issue of accountability,” but she also told reporters the reforms proposed this year are “absolutely not” an admission by Republicans that assessment testing has gone too far.

The education accountability system the state uses today, which ties student assessment scores to school grades and funding, was spearheaded under Republican leadership — specifically that of Gov. Jeb Bush.

Flores said the technology didn’t exist during Bush’s tenure to hold all exams at the end of the year and guarantee results were returned almost immediately, as lawmakers propose now.

“It’s an acknowledgment of the fact that we can always do better,” Flores said, adding that “there’s finally a sense of political will” to put that into action.

She said the proposal was developed, in part, with help from the Bush-founded Foundation for Florida’s Future and other partner groups. The legislation also has support from several conservative-leaning organizations, including the Florida Chamber, the James Madison Institute and the Florida Coalition of School Board Members.

“Our school board members believe that teachers should have more time to teach, students should have more time to learn, and parents should be provided with meaningful results to allow them to take effective actions on behalf of their students,” the coalition said in a statement.

The testing reform proposal also draws on a big conversation point from the 2016 session: Whether the SAT/ACT can be used as an alternative to the FSA high-school students take, which might prevent potential duplication and extra testing.

Under the bill, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart would be required to study this year if it is even feasible — specifically whether the SAT/ACT “align” with the high school-level English and math standards Florida requires under its version of Common Core, which the FSA assesses for each student.

“Let’s look at what it really means,” Diaz said. “So if it’s not realistic, we don’t have this mythical conversation and so we have a real discussion about how to improve our accountability system and testing.”

Stewart had opposed last year’s efforts in the Senate to allow the SAT/ACT to be an alternative to the FSA, because she argued that they didn’t necessarily test the same proficiencies.

She told the Herald/Times on Tuesday she had yet to fully review this year’s testing reform legislation, but she supports the component calling for a study on the viability of alternative tests.

“We would need to make that sort of analysis and comparison to be sure,” Stewart said, “because you don’t want to be teaching students one thing and assessing them on something else. You not only don’t want to do that, you shouldn’t do it and legally you can’t do it.”

The bill does not address other potential alternative tests, such as whether Advanced Placement exams could be used in lieu of required end-of-course tests. Flores said that “could be a next step.”

To implement the scheduling reforms, the legislation — if enacted — would require some renegotiation with the state’s testing vendor, American Institutes for Research. The state hired AIR in 2014 to develop and administer the FSA, which replaced the FCAT 2.0.

AIR’s $220 million contract is in its third year and then goes into a period of one-year renewals, Diaz said, so the timing works for such talks.

“I wouldn’t want to put them in a bind,” Diaz said. “We need to have real answers before we move on it.”//

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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