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Florida lawmakers make testing troubles an early priority

After a year that saw parents rise up against standardized testing, Florida lawmakers on Wednesday said they are prepared to improve the state’s assessment program.

"We have a chance to do a rewrite so we can ensure that we are not over-testing our children, and ensure that we provide a road map to the districts about how to do this,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

Lawmakers floated a number of ideas. Among them:

•Reducing the overall number of state-mandated exams.

•Eliminating repetitive tests.

•Allowing some national tests, such as the Advanced Placement exams, to stand in the place of state-mandated tests.

•Providing districts with more flexibility on how to assess students.

Lawmakers also discussed districts' readiness for the new Florida Standards Assessment, which launch this year. Several school districts have said they lack the technology needed to give the computer-based tests — and have turned to the legislature for help.

While it is unlikely lawmakers that can make any changes before the testing cycle begins in the spring, they intend to act quickly, Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Don Gaetz said.

"We don’t have a year or two to study this," said Gaetz, R-Niceville. "Any kind of clean up that we need, or simplification we need in testing and assessment, should have been addressed by now. We’re in the fourth quarter."

Participation in the testing program is mandated by Florida law. The requirements include reading tests in grades three through eleven, math tests in grades three through eight, and science tests in grades five and eight.

High school students must take six end-of-course exams, among other tests.

Parents have long complained about the state’s emphasis on testing and the stress it puts on schoolchildren. But new additions to the assessment program have prompted even more of a backlash in recent months.

This year, the education department is rolling out the Florida Standards Assessment, some of which will be given on computers. The tests are aligned to Florida’s new education benchmarks, based on the Common Core State Standards. School districts are also required to develop additional assessments in courses not covered by a statewide exam as part of the move to performance pay for teachers.

"You senators know that we have gone test crazy in our state," Fort Myers businesswoman and grandmother Chris Quackenbush told the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday.

In that meeting, and a meeting of the Senate Pre-K Education Committee later in the day, senators pelted State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart with sharp questions and concerns about the testing program.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said she had heard from parents and teachers "all summer long" about the stress of testing.

"When you’re doing the test, the pre-test, the retakes — doesn’t that take kids out of the classroom and pretty much disrupt the whole learning cycle?" she asked.

Gaetz, who asked pointed questions about the cost of the program, said he was troubled by a lack of information. "We don't know how much time is consumed by state-mandated tests," he said. "We don't know much money it costs to perform state-mandated tests. We don't know whether tests that are required by state mandate are valid and reliable."

Stewart reminded lawmakers that she is conducting an investigation into standardized testing. She plans to release a final report next month, she said.

Among her goals: to determine how many tests are required by the state, and how many are required by local school districts. She also hopes to better understand how districts are using each test, she said.

Several senators, including Education Committee Chairman John Legg, said they would like to see "fewer, better tests" in the future. But Legg and others made it clear that testing is here to stay.

"We do not need to retreat [from accountability]," said state Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "We do not need to go back to the days before we began the journey that we are on."

In addition to the number of tests, state lawmakers also discussed the new Florida Standards Assessment. Montford said several districts lacked the technology and infrastructure to transition to computer-based tests. He also noted that the tests were displacing students from computer labs.

"There are some schools that tell the students that they might as well stay home that day because they are using the labs for testing," he said.

Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia raised separate concerns about the amount of time it takes to give the computer-based tests.

"It's not the assessment," she said. "I agree with the assessments matched to the standards. But the way that we’re administrating it is going to cause — and has caused — an excessive amount of time to be used in the school, and it is a disruption."

Stewart noted that computer-based tests were being phased in over the next several years, giving districts time to adjust. She promised a "smooth transition" to the new exams.