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Legislature Rushes To Get Testing Overhaul In Place

Florida Standards Assessment

Students could see an immediate change in the number of tests they take under plans moving fast in the legislature. The move is a response to widespread criticism of the state’s new standardized testing infrastructure, and comes as districts continue reporting problems with the new exams.

On day four of the new Florida Standards Assessment, superintendents association lobbyist Joy Frank says she’s still getting calls about testing problems:

“I think it’s the good news and bad news about technology. It wasn’t going well when everyone went online at the same time. There was a white screen that appeared and people just--’oh my God, here we go again.’ Based on what I’m hearing from some of the large districts, that has smoothed out.”

Students taking the online-version of the writing portion of the exam have experienced problems logging on, and getting dropped from the system as they try to complete the test. The Florida Department of Education attributes the glitches to the testing administrator, the American Institutes for Research. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart says despite the glitches, more than a third of the students who are slated to take the exam have completed it. The department is allowing a two-week makeup window for districts that have been slow to start the test amid the problems. But Stewart remains confident it will get done on time:

“Through yesterday, the state has successfully tested 229,000 students, which represents 35 percent of the students to be tested. And we’re 30 percent of the way through the testing schedule,” she told the House Education subcommittee.

The glitches are only fuel to critics who say the state needs to get rid of AIR and the new Florida Standards Assessment all together. The test is based on the common core, better known in Florida as the Florida Standards. Critics like Chris Quackenbush with the Stop Common Core Coalition say it’s all the same, and should be ditched.

“In listening to testimony in the Senate, and here today, We have a testing train that’s run off the track. And we’re re-arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. The FSA is a giant experiment," Quackenbush said.

Despite the tech problems, Florida lawmakers are focused on trying to fix the system currently in place. The House and Senate have similar bills to scale back what many teachers, superintendents, and parents see as a state obsessed with testing. Both the House and Senate are following a recommendation by the Department to eliminate an 11th grade test all together and Pinellas County Schools lobbyist Steve Swartel is pleased with the product so far.

“The bill in tone and substance recognizes we have some things to correct to improve. We all support accountability and this is a great step forward for us. I want to thank you for your attitude toward this and your partnership toward this.”

Most significantly, when it comes to teacher evaluations the bills lowers the percent of a teachers evaluation tied to student performance down from half- to a third.  The Senate made a similar change Wednesday when it took up its version of the bill crafted by Sen. John Legg (R-Lutz).

"This bill probably goes too far for some individuals, not enough for others. Some want it further to the left. Some want it further to the right," he said.

A sticking point has been what to do about this year’s school grades. The grading system is largely tied to student learning gains drawn from a year-to-year comparison. But students have an all new test. And there’s no real way to do that. Republican lawmakers say grades will go forward. But in case it all falls apart—there’s a contingency plan. Districts could apply for a waiver to the grading system for the current school year if they experience too many problems administering the exams.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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