TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Education Commissioner Pam Stewart faced tough questions from senators Wednesday as she outlined how the state would move forward on tweaks to its current schools standards and select a new test for students.
Speaking to the Senate Education Committee, Stewart tried to tamp down concerns that a quick timeline for having a new test in place for next school year could cause problems.
"We've put every precaution in place to ensure that we will have an assessment that is appropriate for Florida's students in the '14-'15 school year," Stewart said.
Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order in September requiring the state to end its role in helping handle the financial affairs of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. The state is currently reviewing five applications by testing companies hoping to develop a new test for Florida.
Stewart is scheduled to select the winner in March.
Despite talk that the state might ultimately end up using PARCC, Stewart said the multi-state consortium did not participate in the state's "invitation to negotiate" for the new test.
"PARCC did not apply," she said in response to a question from Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, about whether the test might still be used. "I would suggest to you ... it will depend on the five applications. It cannot be considered as part of the ITN."
Pressed by Montford again about whether Florida could ultimately end up using PARCC, Stewart cited legal restrictions on what she could and couldn't say.
"You have probably stepped into the arena of questions I could not answer," she responded.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, was more blunt while talking to reporters after the meeting, which Gaetz attended.
"I would say that I'm one of 40 senators, and my vote, if necessary, on the floor would be for legislation for Florida not to participate in PARCC," he said.
Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, pushed Scott to abandon the test last year amid a continuing grass-roots uproar about the test and the Common Core standards linked to it. Conservative activists say the new standards, which were developed by all but a handful of states, represent an avenue for federal intrusion into public schools.
That led to the current situation, where the test selected this March will be used by the state during the following school year. Some lawmakers are concerned that the timeframe is too short.
"What exactly is the rush?" asked Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.
Other senators were concerned about the potential of a bid protest, which Stewart said the state is working to avoid, or the fact that the new exam will not be field-tested in schools first, as is often done.
"If we select an assessment that has been appropriately vetted, is appropriately tested for reliability and validity, whether or not our students in Florida have practiced on that test is not significant," Stewart said.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, said she was worried that students and teachers will not know what a passing grade on the test is until after it's been administered the first time. Stewart said the state needs data from the results to decide what a passing score should be.
"While I appreciate that," Benacquisto responded, "going into especially a new assessment not knowing what success might look like on the other side troubles me a little bit, because I want to be sure that we put our students in the best position to be successful."
Stewart also said that schools would not be forced to begin using a "turnaround plan," among the most dramatic steps that can be taken to try to boost student achievement, based on scores on next year's test.
Stewart spoke generally about changes to the state's version of the common core standards. There will be about 40 recommended changes to the voluminous list of benchmarks, she said. The bulk of the changes will be additions to what are currently included in the standards.
The State Board of Education is scheduled to consider those changes at a meeting next month.
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