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'With Sigh Of Relief And Celebration': Florida Education Waiver Aids Students, Schools Amid Pandemic

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Answering the question of how the state would handle standardized testing this year, the Florida Department of Education issued an emergency order Friday waiving accountability measures tied to state exams.

Concerns about consequences of testing had loomed as exams kicked off this week for some students. Education officials and lawmakers grappled with the issue because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools, including many students learning remotely.

"Similar to last year, this emergency order protects our high school seniors and empowers local school districts and schools to make the important decisions on graduation, promotion and whether to opt-in to school grades and improvement ratings," Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a prepared statement Friday.

State assessments were canceled last year because of the pandemic.

Under the emergency order, graduation for high school seniors this spring will not be contingent on passing exams "if the district determines on a case-by-case basis that the student's high school record establishes a comparable level of achievement."

The order also makes clear that end-of-course exam scores can be waived when determining whether students get promoted to the next grade levels.

"Decisions about whether it is in the best interest of a child to repeat a grade solely for academic reasons must be determined at the local level by the school's principal, after a careful review of the student's academic record, with input from the parents, the student, teachers and school leaders," the department wrote in a PowerPoint presentation.

It's news that Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has been waiting for.

"We've received today an executive order, with a sigh of relief and celebration, over the level of passion and flexibility that Commissioner Corcoran has extended to the entire state of Florida," said Carvalho during a Friday afternoon news conference.

Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie released this statement.

"FLDOE Emergency Order 2021-EO-02 was created in the best interest of our students. We welcome the flexibility that it provides and are carefully examining the components to determine the impact of this order to be able to provide guidance for our students, parents and schools."

The order also makes community-service requirements for prospective Bright Futures scholarship recipients more flexible if students fall short of required hours because of the pandemic.

The order also provides flexibility for schools, allowing them to opt in to receiving school grades based on students' test scores. Lagging school grades in some cases can force low-performing schools to implement turnaround plans or be taken over by charter-school operators.

Schools' "improvement ratings" related to their grades will remain in their pre-pandemic designations.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a prepared statement Friday that the order will "empower students, families and teachers with data on students' progress and growth and provide them with the necessary tools to create the best educational experience for each individual."

The Florida Education Association supported nixing consequences for students and schools.

"This has not been a normal school year, and a test should not cost kids the chance to graduate or be promoted," Andrew Spar, president of the statewide teachers union, said in a statement.

However, Spar said "teachers did not get the same kind of consideration" under the emergency order.

"Test scores still will be allowed to impose very real costs on them through their evaluations. The educators who have served Florida's students throughout the pandemic also deserve to be shown some grace. They have faced unprecedented challenges this school year," Spar said.

The Department of Education on Friday also submitted an application to have certain federal testing requirements waived. If that waiver is approved, Florida would not be required to implement and report the results of the state's accountability system.

State officials stressed that exams will still be administered.

"The results of state assessments are crucial to help identify students who need specialized supports, help teachers tailor their instructional delivery to support individual student needs, and ensure equity in opportunity and closing achievement gaps for millions of Florida's at-risk students," a news release from the governor's office said.

(©2021 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Ryan Dailey contributed to this report.)

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