TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Legislation that would overhaul Florida's testing program for public schools was in suspended animation Wednesday, as senators weigh whether to exempt some students in high-level classes from statewide standardized tests.
The potential change bubbled up as lawmakers try to put the finishing touches on the highest-profile education legislation of the session. After a lengthy discussion of the bill (HB 7069), the Senate decided to return to the legislation Thursday.
Language under consideration by the Senate, some of it adopted Wednesday, would put on hold the use of student test data for school grades, teacher evaluations and student promotion to fourth grade until the new Florida Standards Assessments can be independently validated. The testing platform used for the assessments has come under attack from lawmakers and the public after a rollout last month that featured log-in problems and a cyber attack.
The Senate would also scrap a law requiring school districts to come up with end-of-course tests in classes where the state doesn't administer such exams; cap at 5 percent the share of students' time that can be spent on testing; and reduce from 50 percent to a third the portion of a teacher's evaluation tied to student performance.
But the chamber got bogged down when Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, proposed an amendment that would exempt students who do well on tests in high-level courses --- like advanced placement or industry certification exams --- or on the ACT or SAT from the corresponding statewide tests.
There seemed to be little disagreement about the policy thrust of Lee's proposal. According to the overall bill's sponsor, though, it was unclear whether the amendment might undermine an emerging compromise with the House on the legislation.
"This may be the one straw ... that causes us to hit the reset button," said Senate Education Pre-K-12 Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz. "But if it's a passion of this body, it will be a passion of mine."
Lee said he wouldn't stand in the way of a compromise. But if there wasn't a done deal, he said the Senate should "send the strongest message to the Department of Education and to our colleagues in the House that we think there's too damn much testing going on in this state," particularly with students who are likely to pass the tests with ease.
"We have lost the public-relations war in our communities over testing," Lee said. "And all the theory and all the concept is great, but the parents aren't buying it anymore. We've spun and talked our way through this as long as we can, and no one's buying the message anymore."
Other lawmakers were prepared to go along with the idea regardless of what it might do to negotiations with the House.
"Don't we owe it to the students, the parents and the teachers of this state to do it right instead of doing it in a hurry?" said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. "I beg you, pass this good amendment and challenge, if you need to, our colleagues in the House to not take it. I cannot imagine their good conscience allowing them to reject this amendment."
Even if the amendment were to pass, though, there could still be divisions about the legislation. A bipartisan group of senators protested an amendment that would allow schools in Florida to start as early as Aug. 10, saying it could hurt tourism and take away summers for young Floridians. That measure was approved on a voice vote.
Some Democrats hammered provisions of the Senate language as inadequate to address parental complaints about the Florida Standards Assessments in particular and over-testing more generally. For example, they questioned why the state didn't suspend the test while a third-party group conducts the study called for by the legislation.
"This is kind of backwards. What we're doing is giving kids the test and then deciding afterwards whether or not we're going validate the test," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
The News Service of Florida's Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.
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