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Fewer And Better: How Lawmakers Want To Change State Testing

The new Florida Standards Assessments begin today. Most students will take the exam online, though some students will take a paper and pencil version of the writing exam.
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The new Florida Standards Assessments begin today. Most students will take the exam online, though some students will take a paper and pencil version of the writing exam.
The new Florida Standards Assessments begin today. Most students will take the exam online, though some students will take a paper and pencil version of the writing exam.
Credit Extra Ketchup
Extra Ketchup
Most students will take the Florida Standards Assessments online.

When lawmakers return to Tallahassee in March for the annual legislative session, they have a lot of questions they need to answer about public school testing.

Senators laid out their concerns about the state testing system last week at a series of meetings.

They don’t know how many tests the state requires or how long it takes to complete those exams.

They don’t know how much the state and school districts spend on testing.

And they’re not convinced they can depend on all the results of those exams.

Sen. David Simmons – and his colleagues -- want to change that.

“We’ve got the chance here this spring to do a re-write of this so that we can, in fact, assure that we’re not over-testing our children," Simmons said.Florida lawmakers say they're ready to make changes to state testing rules.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Florida’s system for judging school performance -- like another European capital, at least according to Simmons.

“I believe our testing has sort of been like Paris," the Orlando-area Republican said, "built up over a period time and it’s just a jumbled group of roads that our school districts are now trying to navigate.”

The Testing Pioneer

Florida was a pioneer in using state test results to give out grades to public schools.

The test scores are also used to hold back third graders and evaluate how well teachers are doing their job.

Republican state Sen. David Simmons.
Republican state Sen. David Simmons.

But opposition to these tests has spiked as lawmakers tacked on more uses for the scores.

Across the state, school boards, parents and other critics have offered both symbolic and substantive protests against the sheer number of tests -- and how the results are used.

Simmons and other senators say they support “accountability” – keeping track of student, school and teacher performance.

Accountability also means the consequences that come with low state test scores, like teachers and principals losing their jobs, closing schools or letting students choose a new school.

Political Pressure

Right now, lawmakers aren’t talking about changing how the test results are used.

But lawmakers are concerned about the spreading patchwork of tests required by state law.

Republican Sen. John Legg is chairman of the Senate education committee.

“I believe that fewer tests are better and if we have fewer, better tests, that may be a good direction to go," said Legg (R-Trinity).

The state requires students to take annual math, reading and writing exams known as the Florida Standards Assessment. On the top of that, school districts also have to give end-of-course assessments, which could be a test, a project or another way to measure how much a student has learned.

More tests check whether students are ready for kindergarten or college.

There are two concerns when it comes to all this testing. The first is how much time each student spends taking tests in a school year. Lawmakers are clearly feeling pressure about that.

“My DNA is all over the accountability legislation this Legislature has passed. I take a responsibility for a good bit of it," said Sen. Don Gaetz.

But now the Panhandle Republican --  a former school superintendent -- is backtracking.

At last week’s Senate hearing, he and other senators repeatedly asked Florida’s Department of Education for help in how to cut back testing. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart didn’t offer any suggestions.

“Are we headed in the direction of fewer tests and better tests?" Gaetz asked Stewart. "And if so, when will we get there?”

Republican state Sen. Don Gaetz.
Credit Gina Jordan/StateImpact Florida
Republican state Sen. Don Gaetz.

“In order to have fewer tests, it’ll take legislative change," she said. "I’m happy to implement that.”

Fewer, But Also Faster

The other concern critics have is the amount of time schools are disrupted by testing -- because they have to reassign teachers, close computer labs or find other things to do for students not taking tests.

This is known as the testing window. In many districts, schools are administering some tests one out of every three school days. Florida superintendents want lawmakers to reduce the burden on districts as well as students.

One way to do that is to reduce the number of tests. Another is to help districts speed up testing.

Hillsborough County schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia said her district needs more computers to give the new, online statewide exam, the Florida Standards Assessments.

“We’re currently spending up to two months completing the task for the 600 students at that middle school," she said, citing one example from the district, "to do the FSA and to do the required statewide end-of-course exams.”

If the school had a computer for every student, she says they could finish the same testing in nine mornings.

Lawmakers do say they plan to add more money for technology. But it’s unclear just how much.

And next year’s funding won’t arrive by the time schools have to give the new exam for the first time this spring.

Copyright 2015 WLRN 91.3 FM

John O’Connor is a reporter for StateImpact Florida, a project of WUSF, WLRN and NPR covering education. John writes for the StateImpact Florida blog and produces stories for air on Florida public radio stations.