House Senate Split On Whether To Ease Testing Penalties On Students, Schools

Mar 27, 2015

The Florida Senate is preparing to vote on a plan to scale back standardized testing in public schools.  Significant differences between the House and Senate—could mean a lengthy negotiating process on education to come up with a plan to address public concerns.

Public sentiment on the state of Florida’s testing system is loud and clear.

“This new test is not road ready. And I feel that while we are crash-testing it, we are putting our kids in danger," said Marie Claire Lehman. 

"If something isn’t done, you will open the state to a myriad of lawsuits by people whose lives and livelihoods are affected by what appears to be an invalid test," said anti-common core activist, Karen Effrem speaking before the Senate appropriations committee.

The committee approved the Senate’s version of an education overhaul bill Wednesday---setting the stage for a full vote by the Senate in the next few days. But the gap between the House and Senate on how much leeway to give schools and students has widened after an amendment to SB 616 was added. It’s necessary, says Republican Senator Alan Hays.

“Consequently I think it’s wrong that we use this test, and its proneness to error if you will, as an assessment for promotion, retention, graduation and teacher evaluation," he said.

Hays had a broader proposal that would have stopped testing all together. But it was replaced with the graduation and retention language by Republican Senator David Simmons. Teachers would still be evaluated and paid based upon results of the Florida Standards Assessment. But low performing third and tenth graders could use an alternative assessment to determine whether they are held back or graduate. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli told reporters Friday he isn’t keen on the idea of giving those students a pass:

“We feel like we shouldn’t be taking that approach but there will be conversations between the House and Senate moving forward.”

Throughout session the Senate has insisted on “safety provisions” in case districts experience big problems with the new Florida Standards Assessment. The Senate bill includes a provision that allows districts to apply for a school grade waiver from the state. So far—technical glitches plagued the online writing version of the exam—and teachers, parents, and district administrators are skeptical whether the rest of the tests will be any better. Andy Ford, President of the state teacher’s union the Florida Education Association—says even with the changes in the bill, problems remain:

“This is not an easy situation everyone finds themselves in, and Testing season has already begun and what you’re talking about, trying to put the breaks on  may not be possible at this point," he said.

Most members of the Senate Appropriations Committee doesn’t deal with education, and Wednesday marked the first time many of them had seen the proposal. The issue is complicated, and even after two hours of discussion, Democratic Arthenia Joyner expressed her exasperation with the issue, calling it a “quagmire” and a quandary”.

“I must confess, after 15 years this is the most confused I’ve been at the end of a long day about a bill," she said.

The Full Senate will take up the testing bill in the upcoming days and while most of the proposals are similar—the two chambers could soon clash over how much leeway to give to students, schools and districts that are struggling in the new system.