Florida House poised to make some changes to state testing

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Florida legislators are prepared to scale back the number of tests given to students, but they remain opposed to any large changes that could undo the signature program put in place by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The House is expected this week to pass a wide-ranging bill that places limits on the number of standardized tests that could be given in public schools. The legislation also would allow school districts to move up the start of the school year to Aug. 10.

But Republicans on Tuesday rejected changes pushed by Democrats, including a key amendment that called for suspending the school-grading system put in place by Bush. The former GOP governor has touted his education law as he mounts what appears to be an all-but-certain campaign for president.

Democrats argued that the state should not assign A-to-F grades this year because of the troubled rollout of a new standardized test. The test, which is being given online in many grades, is based on standards linked to Common Core but has been hampered by technical glitches and even what state officials assert was a cyberattack. The school grades have been in place since 1999 and were a centerpiece of changes pushed by Bush.

“Are we really going to potentially penalize our students with a system we don’t know is working or not?” asked state Rep. Alan Williams, a Democrat from Tallahassee.

GOP legislators pointed out that this year there are no sanctions if schools fare poorly on the new tests, but they argued that schools should still have a chance to earn top grades and the financial rewards that come with them.

“Why should we punish those who have actually gone out and prepared for it?” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

Crisafulli, a Republican who is backing Bush if he runs for president, said that the refusal of House Republicans to go along with a pause on the school-grading system has nothing to do with a looming Bush candidacy. He said the changes proposed in the House bill (HB 7069) are “good policy.”

But state Rep. Mia Jones, a Jacksonville Democrat who proposed suspending the school grades, was skeptical.

“I think there are some political games being played,” said Jones, who noted that Republicans had changed their reasons for opposing the suspension of the school-grading system.

Legislators are expected by the time their session ends in early May to pass some sort of bill that places limits on — but does not eliminate — the tests given to students. The House bill, for example, would permanently eliminate an 11th-grade standardized test and would prohibit final exams in classes where students take a state-required end-of-course test.

But so far Republican leaders have resisted other proposals, including allowing parents to opt out from tests. On Tuesday, House Republicans also shot down an amendment that would have let students choose to take a paper-and-pencil version of the state’s main standardized test.