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The days of preparing and sitting for hours’ worth of spring state tests could be nearing an end for many of Florida’s public school students.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday called on lawmakers to revamp the state’s school accountability system by eliminating several of the annual exams students take and replacing them with shorter student “progress monitoring” reports, which are tailored to individual students and already given throughout the school year.
“This will be one of our top priorities in the legislative session,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Doral.
He said the idea would reduce testing in the schools by 75 percent, and help students and teachers make adjustments during the school year, while keeping parents better informed. His proposal applies to the basic Florida Standards Assessments exams given for English/language arts and math, but not for end-of-course exams in subjects such as algebra, U.S. history and biology.
Specifically, the progress monitoring reports would come out three times a year — in the fall, winter and spring, DeSantis said.
“This is going to be more student-friendly, this is going to be more teacher-friendly and it’s going to be more parent-friendly,” DeSantis said from the stage of the Doral Academy, a charter school with a waiting list of around 4,000 students, according to its principal.
The governor said the proposed system will allow individual student progress to be assessed in “hours, not days,” as it does with current standardized testing.
With the FSA, students take the test at the end of the school year, and the results aren’t in until after students are home for the summer.
“You can’t go back and fix them,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis’ proposal came days before the Legislature begins its pre-session committee weeks, with the Senate Education Committee slated to hold a discussion the afternoon of Sept. 21 on standards and assessments.
Educators support move, but worry about details
Florida’s education and political communities responded quickly with broad support for the idea, a striking change amid a legal battle over school masks that has deeply divided the state.
Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho praised the turn toward “fewer, better state assessments with greater reliance on ongoing, real-time progress monitoring data.”
“It’s exactly what we teachers have been asking for,” said Sarah Painter, Florida’s Teacher of the Year, who works at Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater. “It’s data in real time rather than through a culminating effort.”
Teachers unions in South Florida echoed those sentiments.
“For 20 years, we have underscored the harmful effect that mandated tests have had on our students and educators’ ability to teach students in a rich and meaningful way,’’ said a statement from United Teachers of Dade, the teachers union in Miami-Dade public schools.
“We feel like we’ve been heard with this change,” said Holly Hummell-Gorman, president of United Teachers of Monroe. “It allows for much more individualized instruction for each kid.”
Parents called the announcement “the best news” and “a good move” to swerve away from sending money to testing vendors for a product that did little to help students.
But, some cautioned, the details will be important.
Interim Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said the district was generally favorable to DeSantis’ proposal, but key details were left out of the announcement.
Cartwright said she wants to know more about how Tallahassee will determine how third-graders are promoted to the next grade absent the FSA. Under the current policy, the student must receive a satisfactory grade on the language arts FSA to move on to fourth grade.
Similarly, Cartwright said she has questions about senior graduation, which is dependent on seniors passing several end-of-term exams.
“This is an example of where the details are going to be extraordinarily important on how we proceed forward,” Cartwright told reporters Tuesday.
Florida schools have used mid-year testing to help determine where students are succeeding and falling behind for a number of years. The state Department of Education put increased focus on the effort when it asked school districts for their 2020-21 reopening plans, stressing that having student performance data is critical to overcoming any learning losses.
Last year, many schools were able to predict their spring testing results with accuracy using the model, suggesting that the actual exams — long a source of discontent among many parents and educators — might be redundant.
“I think it’s going to be transformative to how students learn,” Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said, noting that many have criticized the state’s testing regimen as an “autopsy,” with results coming too late to be helpful. What the governor is proposing is “diagnostic,” he said.
“From April to May, we basically shut down schools for testing,” he said.
Pandemic revealed FSA tests’ issues
He said the faults of standardized testing became evident during the first full school year of the pandemic, when results from Florida Standards Assessments were not counted, but schools were using progress monitoring.
Though the assessments will go away, Corcoran said, other elements of Florida’s school accountability system will remain the same, including school grades, turnaround plans for struggling schools and teacher evaluations based in part on student performance. In that sense, he said, “everything stays the same.”
The state cannot completely do away with exams that provide summary information about academic performance without approval from the federal government, which still requires certain data through the Every Student Succeeds Act.
But now could prove a timely opportunity to make changes, as Florida already has been moving away from the Florida Standards Assessments because of its switch to the new BEST standards, which took effect in kindergarten through second grade this year.
Pay attention to legislative details
Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said DeSantis’ idea had merit, as it could lessen the testing load while still providing plenty of information for evaluating performance. It would measure growth, he noted, because the students sit for progress monitoring more than once during the year.
Of course, Spar noted, the details will have to be worked through. “Our hope is we will work with legislators to try and get it done right,” he said.
Cindy Hamilton, co-founder of the Florida Opt-Out Network, raised questions.
“How will they collect the high-stakes data used for school grades and teacher evaluations?” she asked. “Our position has always been that the high stakes attached to testing needs to end. I am not seeing that promise in anything that the governor has said.”
Bob Schaeffer, the Florida-based executive director of FairTest, said DeSantis’ proposal sounded good “on first blush.” But he shared Hamilton’s concerns, and wondered how the state can get around federal testing requirements.
“Until issues like these are addressed, Florida education stakeholders will not know whether the governor’s proposal amounts to significant assessment reform or just another case of ‘changing the name to protect the guilty,’ ” Schaeffer said in an email.
Some key legislators behind idea
Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Education Committee said they were open to the idea of doing away with spring testing.
“I am in favor of it as long as we can have some form of measurement and accountability,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine. “I have always said life isn’t about one big test but rather a series of tests and quizzes.”
House Speaker Chris Sprowls shared Hutson’s perspective, indicating general backing of the idea but saying the modifications should be “consistent with the core values of high standards and effectively measuring student learning,” spokeswoman Jenna Box Sarkissian said.
State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat who is vice chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, said the state’s testing system has needed major changes for years.
“I would love for this to be a bipartisan effort for us to reimagine what testing looks like in the state of Florida,” said Jones, a former teacher.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Gwen Filosa contributed to this report.