March 05, 2015

Florida House rolls out testing proposal

The Florida House plans to move quickly on its testing bill, leaders said Thursday.

"We're going to try to get this to the floor as soon as we possibly can so we can alleviate all of the stress and uncertainty in the field," House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole said.

Her goal: to ensure "the teachers can teach, the students can learn, and the parents can be assured that we know what we're doing." 

The 70-page draft proposal is similar to the version in the Senate. It eliminates a new 11th grade language arts exam, removes the requirement that school districts test every student in every subject, and reduces the extent to which student test performance factors into teacher pay.

It also gives local school districts the flexibility to start school as early as August 10. (Current law says school may start no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day.)

The House education panel took some testimony on the proposal Thursday morning.

Orange County Schools lobbyist Scott Howat called the bill "an excellent start," but raised questions related to this week's bungled administration of new online tests.

"We know students are rushing through the process, and they are trying to get their work done quickly, thinking they could get kicked off, they could lose their work..." Howat said. "There are some things we could look at, [such as] should we use this as a baseline year or a beta year?"

O'Toole said schools would still be graded based on student performance, though they would not be penalized.

"That is the position at this point in time," she said. "We are going to grade the schools just so we can see where we are at."

The committee plans to vote on the bill Monday.

The House Education panel also heard from state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who the software problems plaguing the new Florida Standards Assessment had been resolved. She noted that testing was ahead of schedule.

"We expect everyone to be completed by the end of next week," she said. 

Florida Association of District Schools Superintendents lobbyist Joy Frank noted that some large school systems were still facing intermittent problems. "These are problems that will be resolved," she said. "I'm confident about that."

Florida Senate panel votes to scale back testing

A plan to scale back testing in Florida schools cleared its first hurdle in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, winning the approval of the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former schools superintendent, said the bill would "place a lid on too much testing."

But the vote did little to satisfy parent and teacher groups, who say state lawmakers need to take more dramatic action — especially in light of this week’s problem-plagued rollout of the new Florida Standards Assessments.

"What's happening in public schools is criminal, and this bill doesn't do much to help our kids," said Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall.

More here.

March 03, 2015

'Software issue' to blame for Florida testing woes

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on Tuesday said "software issue" were to blame for the previous day's testing glitches.

Students across the state had trouble logging on to the new Florida Standards Assessment testing platform. The connections were so slow that some districts, including Miami-Dade and Broward, decided to postpone testing until later in the week.

Stewart said state education officials had consulted with the with the test developer, the American Institutes for Research, to better understand the problem.

"AIR has determined that a software issue caused log-in issues, including delays and error messages for a number of districts," she wrote in an email to superintendents Tuesday. 

While many large school systems delayed testing, about 98 percent of students who started the test completed it, according to the email.

Stewart also noted that some software changes had been made -- and were already leading to improved performance.

"Districts may begin or resume testing as soon as they desire, and additional guidance will be provided to assessment coordinators shortly," she wrote.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee will discuss testing on Wednesday.

March 02, 2015

School districts report testing troubles

Some school districts are reporting problems with the new Florida Standards Assessments, which made their debut Monday morning.

Miami-Dade school district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said the new online platform was running so slowly that testing had been postponed in Miami-Dade County until Tuesday.

Hillsborough schools spokesman Steve Hegarty reported similar issues.

"It's slow," Hegarty said. "The volume seems to be affecting the online testing."

Hegarty said middle schools had been impacted in particular because they logged on later than other schools.

Hillsborough schools also have the option of delaying testing, he added.

The problems were not limited to Miami-Dade and Hillsborough. Students in Palm Beach County were having trouble, too, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Testing began Monday, with students in grades 4 through 10 sitting for the writing portion of the exam.

March 01, 2015

Here they come: Florida's latest round of standardized tests

via @cveiga

More students are expected to flunk. School districts warn they might not be ready. And parents are threatening to boycott.

Ready or not — and many school boards, parents and teachers have been screaming to lawmakers that they’re not — Florida will roll out its new, much debated standardized tests on Monday.

The Florida Department of Education is forging ahead, even with a host of unknowns hanging in the air. Students, for instance, don’t even know what score they’ll have to make to pass.

“We need to question if we have gone too far, too fast,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently told a Florida Senate education committee.

More here.

February 24, 2015

Were some Florida students forced to cite Islamic prayer and make prayer rugs?

A spat between parents and administrators over a Seminole County high school history lesson in Islam has simmered into a minor cause célèbre for online critics.

Ron Wagner of Longwood complained to a local TV station that his 15-year-old son was required to recite an Islamic prayer as part of a world history class at Lyman High School. The students also had to make an Islamic prayer rug as a homework assignment, according to Wagner, who said lessons like that don’t belong in public schools.

"There’s a difference between teaching of the significance or the impact of a religion and teaching the specific tenets of the religion," Wagner told WFTV on Feb 9, 2015.

Blogs and right-leaning media seized on the report, decrying the lessons as attempts to indoctrinate students.

One blog, DownTrend.com, featured a post on Feb. 12 with the headline, "Students In Fla. High School Forced To Recite Islamic Prayer, Make Prayer Rugs."

We don’t mean to pick on this one site -- because there are manymany other placesthat have reblogged the report -- and the writer did update the story after we asked him some questions. But the headline encapsulated the alleged events that have outraged so many people. Were students forced to recite an Islamic prayer and make prayer rugs at Lyman High School? Joshua Gillin of PolitiFact Florida did his homework.

And from our archives, here is a fact-check of a Pants on Fire claim that "Florida Democrats just voted to impose Sharia law on women."

Rick Scott signs executive order to suspend 11th grade exam

Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order on Tuesday suspending the new 11th grade exam in English language arts. 

The action comes in response to a growing backlash from parents and teachers to the state's standardized testing program.

Scott announced his plans to sign the executive order last week. The lag caused some confusion, as local school districts were told to continue preparing for the Florida Standards Assessment exam until a formal executive order was issued.

Leaders in the Florida Senate are also working on a plan to overhaul testing.

February 12, 2015

Proposal would prevent tuition hikes at Florida graduate schools

ScottLast year, Republican Gov. Rick Scott made holding the line on college tuition a top priority.

This year, he's turning his focus to graduate schools.

Scott has unveiled a new proposal that would prohibit universities from raising graduate school tuition after 2015. His office says the measure is necessary because the average graduate tuition rate for residents has jumped more than 12 percent since 2012.

At Florida law schools, the price tag for students has spiked more than 19 percent.

"Why does graduate school tuition continue to go up year after year?" Scott said Tuesday at an education summit hosted by former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida’s Future. "We have to figure this out."

Scott's plan would also require universities to publish the price of textbooks and other education materials at least two weeks in advance of the registration period.

"You, as a student, should know what your instructional materials are going to cost," he said. "You should know 14 days in advance."

The governor said college affordability will be among his top priorities during the Legislative session, which begins March 3.

"This is very important to me because I know what it cost me to get through school," he said.

During the 2014 session, Scott championed a bill that prohibited universities from hiking undergraduate tuition above the annual rate set by the Legislature. (The proposal made an exception for the University of Florida and Florida State University, both of which are limited to a 6 percent increase.)

His latest pitch stands to encounter some push back from some state universities. Law schools have historically been the cash cows of university systems.

The Board of Governors was waiting to comment until a formal bill was released, a spokeswoman said.

University of South Florida spokesman Adam Freeman also said it was too early to weigh in.

But some lawmakers are already saying the idea has merit.

Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who oversees the House education budget, said he was generally supportive of the measure.

"To whatever extent the legislature can create an environment of predictable affordability for higher education, I think that's a good thing," Fresen said.

Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said his committee had not yet explored the details of the proposal. But Gaetz said he and Scott had "spoken directly about the substantial increases in cost of graduate education."

"The fact is the new employment credential in higher-paid jobs is a masters degree, and consequently the cost of a master degree becomes a critical issue for people who are in the workforce and are trying to get a better job, or become qualified to compete for a different job," he said.

Gaetz acknowledged that the idea might not be popular among some universities.

"If we need more physicians, if we need more dentists, if we need more engineers, if there are critical shortages in the labor market, [then] we have to look at price as one of the governors," he said. "And if it requires a masters degree, then a masters degree needs to be within reach of a working person."

February 10, 2015

Jeb Bush to raise money, discuss education in Tallahassee

BushFormer Gov. Jeb Bush's first public appearance in Florida as a likely presidential candidate will be a return to familiar ground in more ways than one.

In addition to hosting a $1,000-a-person lunchtime fundraiser in the capital Tuesday, Bush will convene state leaders to discuss a favorite topic: education.

He is expected to address the school accountability and choice programs he launched more than 15 years ago, and look forward to the future of Florida’s public schools.

"Florida’s impressive gains in student achievement began 15 years ago with the A+ Plan for Education," said Patricia Levesque, the executive director of Bush’s non-profit Foundation for Florida's Future. "Annual testing, data-driven accountability and educational choices were a huge part of the transformational improvements that followed, supporting work in classrooms to keep students from falling through the cracks."

The summit, however, comes at a time when many of Bush's signature education policies have come under fire.

Parents have complained so loudly about testing that the legislature is working to scale back the number of exams. What's more, a voucher program for children from low-income families is facing a legal challenge from the statewide teachers union, PTA, school boards association and other groups.

Late Monday, teachers voiced concerns about Bush's policies in a telephone town hall hosted by the left-leaning non-profit Progress Florida.

Some plan to protest Tuesday's event.

"Jeb Bush calls himself the education governor but Florida public schools are a mess as a result of Jeb’s misguided policies," said Thomas James, a Miami-Dade teacher and member of the Florida Badass Teacher Association. "Not only has Florida dropped to No. 28 nationally in Education Weekly’s recent rankings, Florida public school students have become little more than 'test drones' being bombarded with an array of standardized high stakes tests which eat up as much as 45 school days per year."

The statewide teachers union will not be participating in the protest. But Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall called Bush’s summit "a Kabuki dance."

"He’s gathered all of the stakeholders to make sure nothing is dismantled of his legacy because that legacy will be his springboard for the presidency," McCall said. "The bottom line for us is that we’ve had 15 years of failed reform and the system is crumbling."

Bush announced in December that he was considering a presidential bid. He has launched a political action committee called Right to Rise to facilitate a possible campaign.

A poll last week had Bush leading among potential Republicans candidates in New Hampshire.

February 09, 2015

State urges judge to dismiss voucher lawsuit

Attorneys for the state on Monday urged a judge to dismiss a legal challenge to Florida's school voucher program.

Blaine Winship, special counsel to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, argued that a coalition of teachers, parents and school board members lacked the standing needed to file the lawsuit because none had been injured by the program.

"Special injury must be unique to the person asserting the claim," Winship said.

But attorneys for the plaintiffs said they had indeed suffered.

"The state has established a program and the necessary and automatic consequence of that program is that funding for public schools goes down," attorney John West said. "That injures us as parents of children in public schools."

Leon County Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds III did not rule on the matter from the bench.

He did, however, direct tough questions to lawyers on each side of the case, and ask for recommended orders within the next 10 days. 

"The good news is that everyone in the room is for education," Reynolds said.

The lawsuit -- filed by the Florida Education Association, the state PTA, the Florida School Boards Association and the League of Women Voters, among other groups -- focuses on Florida’s controversial tax credit scholarship program. The program helps children from low-income families attend private schools by providing them with scholarships. 

Here's the rub: The awards are funded by private companies, which receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for their contributions.

The plaintiffs say the money (about $280 million) would otherwise flow into general revenue -- and help fund public schools. "This is a shell game that is not acceptable," FEA Vice President Joanne McCall said. 

But supporters of the voucher program say otherwise.

If the program were to end, "there is not a single guarantee that any child in the public school system would get a dime more," attorney Daniel Woodring said Monday.

Where Reynolds falls on that point will be important. The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 struck down a similar program that was funded directly from the state budget.