The Florida Senate Education Committee dedicated most of its weekly meeting to tackling issues of assessment bloat running counter to students’ best interests.
In the House, the motto has been “fewer, better tests.” Similarly, in the Senate, the bills that have spurred the most comment from committee members are those that address Florida’s testing protocols.
At the meeting, representatives from the Florida Department of Education discussed current education accountability standards. Mary Jane Tappen, vice chancellor of K-12 education, laid out the high school graduation requirements, which include a mandatory online credit.
Deputy Commissioner Juan Copa explained the spring 2017 testing window, which runs from Feb. 22 to May 19.
“There is a difference between testing windows and testing time,” Copa said.
Testing windows provide flexibility for districts to give assessments at the time that best suits them within a period of several weeks. Different assessments are assigned either a one-week or two-week period during which the school districts can hold the exam.
Copa said that a fourth-grader will take assessments in language arts and math, which are given over two days each for 80 minutes a day.
“Even though the assessment window may be 25 days [for the two fourth-grade assessments], for a particular fourth-grade student that’s four days with a total of 5 hours, 20 minutes,” Copa said.
Bills, bills, bills
State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, discussed SB 964, which would allow for several approved national tests (such as the PSAT) to be used as advancement criteria in lieu of the Florida Standards Assessments, if desired. His bill also would allow for students to take exams by pencil and paper, instead of electronically. He told the committee that while an emphasis on computer literacy and competency was important, computer-based testing denied some students the opportunity to showcase their real knowledge.
In addition, SB 964 would eliminate some tests, such as the ninth-grade FSA and many end-of-course assessments, excluding those for Algebra 1 and Biology
In a separate bill, SB 584, Montford laid out alternative pathways to receiving a high school diploma for students that struggled with the 10th grade ELA and Algebra 1 end of course exams.
“Relegation of these students who are otherwise academically successful to a certificate of completion diminishes their opportunities for future employment and post-secondary education,” he said.
Other senators discussed the effect of over-testing at lower grade levels.
State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, argued that the third-grade mandatory retention requirement, which requires schools to hold back students who fail the third-grade literacy exam, was an example of over-use of high stakes testing. He proposed making that optional. Schools would still have the ability to hold back students, but more teacher discretion would be allowed to determine if the poor test result was a true reflection of reading ability.
State Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, presented SB 926. Her bill did not mandate any specific exam cuts, but she said that tests should be “purposeful and meaningful.” The Flores bill would require that teachers get student test results and district feedback sooner. In addition, her bill would tweak the standard for a Level 3 score on ELA and math assessments from “satisfactory” to “proficient.” Level 1 is the lowest score; Level 5 is the highest.
Shawn Frost, president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, spoke in support of the Flores bill for expedited results, as well as a bill by state Sen. Greg Steube, R- Sarasota, that would require all exams to be published three years after being given.
Frost told the committee that it was important to consider the “opportunity costs of testing,” particularly with a testing window beginning three months before the end of the school year.
However, Catherine Baer, chair of the Florida Tea Party Network and member of the bipartisan education group Common Ground, had problems with the Flores bill, which she said didn’t reduce testing volume or lower the stakes.
Marie-Claire Leman, a Tallahassee mother of three and frequent advocate on public school testing concerns, took issue with another element of the Flores bill: making “proficient” the standard for a Level 3 passing grade on certain FSA exams.
“It would fuel the market for vouchers and for-profit charters at the expense of public education,” she said. Leman feared that although this bill would align with National Assessment of Education Progress standards, it would increase failure rates and lower school grades.
Another pair of bills addressed closing the gap between regulations for traditional public schools and charter schools. Charters generally adhere to less-onerous standards.
State Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, proposed that local school districts be allowed to follow the Florida building code instead of adhering to state requirements for educational facilities, which he called excessively prescriptive. Charters currently only follow the state building code.
Similarly, a bill by committee vice chair Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, would allow traditional public schools to calculate maximum class size by school-level averages, which charters do, as opposed to at the classroom level.
The Senate Education Committee meets again Monday, March 27, to focus on charter schools.