Suggesting Florida's student testing program had grown too "extreme," state senators on Wednesday welcomed several ideas aimed at bringing the system back under control.
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"Maybe we've taken a good thing too far, and now it is time to bring some common sense to it," said Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and former Senate president.
He and other members of the Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee offered their initial support to ideas outlined by several superintendents during a two-hour hearing. The four primary recommendations were:
- Return to paper-pencil testing. Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego said teachers and students could regain four weeks or more of learning time, as well as more access to classroom technology that's used for assessment.
- Eliminate state end-of-course exams in Algebra II, Geometry, Civics and U.S. history, as well as the ninth-grade Florida Standards Assessments in language arts and math. Seminole County superintendent Walt Griffin said teachers already have final exams they can use to gauge performance.
- Allow students to take alternative national exams, such as the SAT or ACT, in place of the state tests at certain grade levels.
- Stop using state test results to evaluate teachers and schools. Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning said the "high stakes-ness" of the scores creates too much stress and frustration for students, parents and educators, and suggested there are better ways to rate performance.
"We are not looking to abolish standardized tests," Okeechobee County superintendent Ken Kenworthy told the senators. "We need to consider everything in moderation."
Students see value in some tests such as Advanced Placement and industry certifications, Grego noted, because those help them verify success in areas they choose to pursue while preparing for college or career. Reducing the other state mandated exams would ease the burden and place the focus in the right direction, he said.
On the other hand, Volusia County superintendent Tom Russell said, using gatekeeper tests such as the tenth-grade language arts FSA can hurt teens seeking to join the military, become first responders or receive student assistance.
"I don't think we want to do that to an 18-year-old," Russell said. "I would suggest we can create multiple pathways" to graduation for students with the adequate grade-point average and credits.
Committee chairman Sen. David Simmons said the message came through loud and clear: "The message is, we're probably using a sledgehammer to kill the fly on the wall."
He supported further examination of the ideas presented. The experts made clear, he said, that the state's attempt to gather data through tests, however well meaning, had gone too far.
Lee criticized the model for collecting results simply to evaluate the school system as "bass-ackward." He urged colleagues to consider the real need for testing.
"I just want us to think about the customers, these children and their parents, and let's design a system that serves them instead of one that serves us," Lee said.
Such views were bipartisan.
"We can do better," said Sen. Daryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who called for a shakeup to the education model.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and former Leon County superintendent, said Florida needed to put teeth in its school accountability back in the 1990s.
"But like anything, you can get too much of a good thing," he said. "It's to the point where we're just simply testing too much, and the use of the assessment programs have gotten off center as well. ... We just need to look under the hood ... for how we can improve."
Monroe County parent Sue Woltanski, an author of the Accountabaloney blog, said she heard many echoes of parent concerns in the two-hour conversation. She encouraged the panel to take a close look at the disruption that computerized testing causes schools, and also to scale back the high-stakes nature of the testing.
"I'm really excited to see what you guys do this year," Woltanski said.
Shan Goff, speaking for Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, said she also supported assessment reform as the "logical next step" in the state's accountability effort. She said the foundation backed a reduction in time spent testing, although she didn't back paper-pencil testing. She also called for getting student results to teachers more timely so they can inform instruction, and also for improved information to parents so they know how their children are doing.
Goff further agreed the time had come to look at using national assessments, if they align to state standards.
Lee challenged Goff to go even further, with a look at backing away from mandatory state testing for high-performing students.
"You can't get a bill out of this Legislature that isn't supported by your foundation," Lee said. "Why am I forcing students to take a standardized test we know they're going to knock out of the park just because we can?"
Goff said the foundation was willing to talk about on the issue with Lee.
With such broad support, Simmons said he intended to have staff look further into the recommendations for possible action. He noted that the savings in teacher time alone by shortening the testing window could be "incredible."
The committee next plans to look into the topics of teacher pay, longer school days, recess and member requests for funding.
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