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Florida Lawmakers Ponder Direction On School Testing

Two students working in the computer lab at Eighth Street Elementary School. (Gaby Rodriguez/WUFT News)
Two students working in the computer lab at Eighth Street Elementary School. (Gaby Rodriguez/WUFT News)

A Senate Education Committee meeting Tuesday on the state's accountability system turned into a show of strength by people who want to scale back standardized testing, as lawmakers consider the next move.

The long-running debate over the use of assessments in school grades, teacher evaluations and retention and graduation decisions has flared again, prompting a spate of new bills from lawmakers to tamp down testing --- and pushback from supporters of former Gov. Jeb Bush's drive to strengthen accountability over the past 15 years.

"The insanity has gone on far too long," said Luke Flynt, secretary-treasurer for the Florida Education Association, the state's main teachers union. "The only consistent result that we have seen from state testing is that they have sucked the joy out of learning and out of teaching."

What is less clear is the way forward in the debate --- whether the Republican-dominated Legislature, which still includes many Bush proteges, will back more-sweeping proposals to eliminate several statewide tests or a measured approach backed by the Bush-founded Foundation for Florida's Future.

Several of the newest proposals were aired Tuesday at the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who has been leading the panel's meetings in the medical absence of Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, said after the meeting that no decision has been made.

"We may put together some sort of a committee bill ... with a configuration of the bills that you just heard," Simpson said. "But again, that's Senator Hukill's ultimate call. We'll have to confer with her first."

House members are already moving forward with what is known as the "Fewer, Better Tests" legislation (HB 773) backed by the foundation --- a bill ironically named, critics say, because it doesn't explicitly eliminate any tests. Supporters say it could lead to some local tests being shelved because they don't meet reporting standards in the legislation.

But several of the people who spoke Tuesday at the Senate committee meeting, even some traditionally aligned with conservative causes, slammed the Senate version of the "Fewer, Better Tests" bill (SB 926) as insufficient.

"It's not a bipartisan bill," said Catherine Baer, chairwoman of The Tea Party Network and part of a coalition backing stronger legislation. "It's been put forward by former Governor Bush's foundation. The foundation's educational philosophy has been soundly rejected by parents in the state of Florida and across the United States."

Most of those wanting to more strongly dial back testing have rallied around a bipartisan proposal spearheaded by Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

That measure (SB 964) would, among other things, get rid of the requirement for end-of-course tests in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics; allow college-entrance exams like the SAT and ACT to be used in lieu of the state's graduation test; and allow a pencil-and-paper option for the state's current, computer-based tests.

"What began as a system to measure student performance and to hold students accountable has become an educational system that has been dominated by tests --- over-testing, I would suggest," Montford, a former Leon County schools superintendent, said Tuesday.

But Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican handling her chamber's version of "Fewer, Better Tests," said the Florida Department of Education first needs to look at whether the entrance exams would accurately measure how well students have learned the state's education standards.

Flores' bill calls for that review.

"If we don't ask the DOE to look into that, then just arbitrarily replacing it may be problematic," she said.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.