Legislature Split On Changes To School Testing

Mar 19, 2015

Credit educationews.org

The gap between the Florida House and Senate’s testing proposals just got bigger. And lawmakers continue weighing changes to the state’s charter school and class size laws.

Rarely do Republicans and Democrats find common ground—especially when it comes to education in the state. But this year, fueled by backlash against the state’s standardized testing system, partisanship is subsiding.

The House unanimously approved its plan for among other things, scaling back the number of tests mandated in the state’s public schools. The issue has been steadily gaining steam—fueled by district complaints, and parents threatening to keep their kids from taking state exams. It’s also something Democrats—having found themselves on the losing side of education policy decisions, can get behind. But that does not mean they’re entirely satisfied with the House’s final work product, as Jacksonville Democrat Rep. Mia Jones, R-Jacksonville, explains:

“When we’ve already seen there have been challenges using this tool, then we know we need to do something before we put a grade on a school. Today I ask you to recognize that we had an opportunity to do more, and we failed to do that.”

The House’s vision for a testing overhaul does much of the same thing as the Senate.

Both plans remove an 11th grade English Language Arts exam. They stop districts from having to create new tests to comply with a teacher evaluation law, and they scale down the amount of a teacher evaluation tied to student performance. But that’s just about where the commonalities end. And to Jones’ point—the Senate version of the bill goes a few steps further by allowing schools to apply for a waiver from grades, due to the testing problems that occurred earlier in the month. Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, says the state is also planning to penalize the testing vendor—the American Institutes For Research.

“We are requesting the DOE go after any liquidated damages the state may be entitled to as a result of this rollout and we will reimburse and  funnel those funds back to the districts to offset some of the costs the could occur or did occur as a result of administering those assessments," he said.

Districts across the state experienced technical problems as they tried to log in to administer the state’s brand new writing exams.

The new Senate bill includes some parts of the House plan relating to the way teachers are evaluated. It also creates a transition period to full, computer-based testing from paper-and-pencil.  It was part of the criticism Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee,  leveled at the House version of the bill.

“I hope we’ll look back on this as we work through this process with our colleagues in the Senate, and really give choice, to our parents and our students on this issue.”

Speaking Wednesday to colleagues, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he believes the Senate plan goes further than the House.

“They passed it unanimously. Every Democrat, every Republican….they all supported the bill. not pride of authorship here, but I think our bill goes  further in being responsive to people who want fewer and better tests than even our good friends in the house.”

In addition to providing a way schools can escape grades for a year the Senate bill caps the amount of time students spend taking state and district exams to five-percent of total school hours. It also requires districts to provide test results within 30 days of an exam, and also includes changes to how students are promoted. All are missing from the House version of the bill. Sen. Legg acknowledges the differences through a hockey analogy.

"We’re past the first period, we’re past the second period, we’re heading into the third period and I really don’t want to go into a shootout," he said. "If we go into a shootout, I don’t think there will be a tie. I think both sides will lose. I think the students of Florida will lose.”

The House version of the bill has now made its way over to the Senate. The Senate version of the bill has one more committee stop before heading to the full chamber. And both proposals will eventually have to be negotiated into one bill.