TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - As students return to school in many parts of the state this week, some will no doubt already be thinking about tests.
Florida's Republican leaders have also long thought about tests, and their role in education, but there are signs that Gov. Rick Scott may be thinking at least a little differently about the future role of exams in student learning.
Scott had hinted earlier this summer that he had at least heard the complaints of parents, teachers and an increasing number of school boards that have fumed about the FCAT, the standardized test that they complained had become too much the focus of Florida's schools.
But it was a quick hint with no follow-up and it wasn't clear where standardized testing really played into the governor's thinking about education overall.
Now, however, Scott is in a new ad, in which he makes it clear that he agrees, at least in part, that high stakes testing as it has been used for 15 years in Florida, may have been overly emphasized.
"I've learned a lot as governor - you can study all the numbers you want, but listening to parents and teachers is still the best education," Scott says in the ad.
"I've listened to the frustrations parents and teachers have with the FCAT," Scott says. "Next year we begin improving our testing system. No more teaching to the test."
While that sounds like a bold change for a governor in a Republican Party that championed the FCAT at its outset and defended it for more than a decade, it actually comes behind a change that's already started.
The students that will take the dreaded FCAT this year will be among the last – it's on the way out already, replaced by a new set of tests that measure more narrowly what students have learned in specific courses.
Critics say it's easy for Scott to criticize something that's already going away, and take credit for helping end the unpopular exam. It actually was phased out by legislation that passed in 2010 before Scott was governor and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist.
FCAT critics say that's what Scott is doing – getting on board with bashing the problems with the test now that it's on its way out, and now that he's starting to think about re-election in two years.
"This video is a campaign ad designed to calm folks down about testing and a PR move to improve Scott's image," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, and a longtime critic of the FCAT. "And I think it's designed to tamp down any chance that testing becomes an issue in legislative races."
Even fellow Republicans acknowledge that Scott may be a bit late to the idea, but some say that's OK.
Sen. Nancy Detert, the Republican who sponsored the bill phasing out the FCAT for a new "end-of-course" exam, said even if the idea has already left the station, it's better for Scott to board late than not at all, because he can help sell the new testing scheme.
"We're happy to have him on the train," said Detert, of Venice.
"He's done an excellent job of listening and not just hearing what he wants to hear, he's heard the complaints about FCAT," Detert said. "And I think now everybody is on the same train."
Those complaints have gotten more intense lately. The state's school boards this year passed a resolution completely panning high stakes testing generally and calling for the state to move away from it.
Under the 2010 law, Florida is moving to end of course exams intended to measure whether students have mastered the material from specific courses, rather than broader skill sets like reading and writing. Understanding of algebra, geometry and biology are already tested this way, and are based on mastering of a certain set of ideas that all students should be expected to learn.
The move comes as part of a broader shift to teaching a "Common Core," a set of national standards to be phased in over the next three years that is aimed at helping boost the nation's performance in areas in which the United States has fallen behind other countries. It's intended to be more rigorous – that is, the courses are going to get tougher - and kids around the country will be expected to essentially learn the same things.
Detert and others say the difference between the old testing and the new testing isn't really that profound, that at the bottom line the goal is the same: to make sure children are learning the things our society thinks they need to learn.
The FCAT, which began in Florida in 1998, was a central element of a move to better measure the successes and failures of schools pushed hard by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
The test has high stakes for students because it is necessary to graduate or move on, though there are multiple opportunities to re-take it. It's also been a key part of measuring schools.
Democrats have complained about the role of the FCAT in the education system nearly since it started. Several said it was too integral to the measurement of students' abilities, and that it fostered teaching to the test, something a number of teachers have told lawmakers over the years.
Republicans, led by Bush, generally responded that teaching to the test wasn't necessarily bad if it got students to learn the material.
The state's former education commissioner, Scott appointee Gerard Robinson, recently urged Florida's school boards not to adopt a resolution critical of the FCAT.
The Florida School Boards Association did so anyway, adopting a document broadly slamming the FCAT and high stakes, standardized testing in general, as over-emphasized. Such testing, "when used alone, is an inadequate and often unreliable measure of both student learning and educator effectiveness," the resolution said.
The association called on Scott and the Legislature to eliminate the use of standardized tests as the "primary basis for evaluating teacher, administrator, school and district performance."
Several school boards have passed similar resolutions – and Scott has evidently noticed.
Despite his education commissioner's opposition to the boards' resolution, Scott earlier this year stunned some observers when he said that it might be possible to focus too much on such tests.
During an address at a newspaper editors' convention, Scott said parents and taxpayers expect schools, teachers and students to be measured.
"They want to measure because you want your child to go to the best schools," Scott said in that speech in early July. "But we need to make sure we don't have too much. The easiest thing to do is to pass more testing."
But he didn't follow up with that line of rhetoric – until the ad, sponsored by the Republican Party, showed up this week.
The ad also trumpets a more familiar Scott refrain on education – that he signed a budget that increased spending on education by more than $1 billion from the previous year.
Critics, however, note that the increase only restored what had been cut the year before.
Copyright 2012 by The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.