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Student Testing Debate Continues in Legislature

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Posted: Thursday, March 2, 2017 12:05 pm

   The testing wars have returned to Tallahassee.

   Two years after widespread computer problems undermined confidence in the state's new standardized tests and sparked a political firestorm, lawmakers are once again floating ideas to reduce high-stakes exams in Florida schools.

Critics of the state's testing system say that reflects the fact that 2015 legislation has done little to tame complaints that children are spending too much time taking assessments and too little time learning. An "opt-out" movement, which argues that parents should be able to tell their children to refuse to answer questions on high-stakes tests, has pushed its claims into court.

   Once again, the testing system that was a key part of former Gov. Jeb Bush's education legacy is under siege.

   "At long last, that pressure has built up so much that even a Legislature that has long been in thrall to Jeb Bush's foundation ... has started to listen," said Bob Schaeffer, a Florida resident and public-education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which is critical of high-stakes exams.

As the annual legislative session prepares to start next Tuesday, the battle over testing has been to some extent overshadowed by Senate President Joe Negron's ambitious plans to overhaul higher education in an effort to boost the state's 12 public universities. Negron has pledged to increase spending on higher education and enrich scholarship programs.

But the testing fight hasdrawn attention. Even the Foundation for Florida's Future, established by Bush to help safeguard his legacy, has rallied behind what supporters are calling the "Fewer, Better Tests" legislation (HB 773 and SB 926).

   "We got the message from parents and teachers about how they feel about the testing process, the anxiety that some of their students feel, and really the common-sense approach of what kind of tools they need to make sure that their children and their students are getting a year's worth of learning in a year's worth of time," said Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican scheduled to become speaker of the House after the 2020 elections.

   That proposal, though, does not explicitly do away with any of the tests causing parents and teachers to complain. It instead focuses on narrowing the teaching window by requiring the state's language-arts and math tests to be administered in the last three weeks of a school year, with the exception of the 3rd-grade reading exam.

   It also would require that the scores for any tests used by local school districts be provided to teachers within a week, instead of the month currently allowed by law --- something that could pare down some of those exams.

And it calls for the state to conduct a study of whether college-entrance exams are closely aligned with Florida's high school standards, with an eye on potentially using the entrance exams as at least a partial replacement for the state's graduation tests.

   Schaeffer dismissed the legislation as the work of the foundation, which also has a national counterpart, to provide cover in Florida using the same "slogan and lack of content that they're advocating nationally."

   Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the Senate education budget committee, said the current testing window is a real problem.

   "They're starting as early as two, three months before the end of school," Simmons said. "Once a test is administered, there's not as much of a reason for the classes to be as diligent in teaching the students."

   Simmons also said the time unnecessarily spent on tests costs the state $1 billion or more each year. He supports pairing some of the provisions of the "Fewer, Better Tests" legislation with a proposal by Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

   That measure (SB 964) would get rid of the requirement for end-of-course tests in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics.

   "In order to maintain the integrity of our system, we can't over-test, and we must test at the right time and we must test in the right amount," Simmons said.

   Whether members of the House, who have traditionally been more hesitant to make widespread changes to the testing regime, would go along with those kinds of changes remains to be seen. Speaking at a press conference to introduce the "Fewer, Better Tests" bill, Simmons' counterpart in the House suggested the overreach of recent years was a distortion of a still-good idea.

"It's important that we continue to measure," said House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. "But as things happen in the Legislature, different legislators come in, different ideas get put into place and sometimes, the original intent is lost or it becomes complicated."

Diaz also said a study was necessary before moving forward with using SAT or ACT scores for high-school graduation. After the press event, Diaz told a reporter he didn't think there were too many state tests, but added, "I think we always have to evaluate that, because things change."

   Amid the testing debate, there has been less focus on school choice, though that is beginning to change. Last week, legislation emerged that would increase the amount of money given to students under the state's de facto school-voucher program and make more children eligible for scholarships aimed at students with disabilities.

   Payments for children enrolled in the voucher-like program to attend private elementary schools would be as much as 88 percent of the public school per-student funding amount. It would be 92 percent for children in middle school and 96 percent for those in high school. Maximum awards under the program now amount to 82 percent of the per-student funding for public schools.

A House bill also would make changes, similar to a Senate measure (SB 902), to the "Gardiner scholarships" meant to help parents pay for educational services for children with disabilities. It would increase spending on the program to $200 million, make students with a wider range of conditions eligible and allow the scholarships to be used to pay for more services, including therapies involving music, art and horsemanship.

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