TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Leading members of the House and Senate unveiled legislation Wednesday that they said could help reduce the amount of time Florida public school students spend on standardized tests during the school year.
But lawmakers admitted that the proposal (HB 773, SB 926), dubbed the “Fewer, Better Tests” legislation, would not explicitly do away with any exams.
The proposal would require the state's language arts and math tests to be administered in the last three weeks of a school year, with the exception of the 3rd-grade reading exam.
It also requires that the scores for any tests used by local school districts be provided to teachers within a week, instead of the month currently allowed by law. And it calls for the state to conduct a study of whether college-entrance exams are closely aligned with Florida's high school standards, with an eye on potentially using them as at least a partial replacement for the state's graduation tests.
The proposal comes amid a continuing stream of complaints from parents that children in Florida's schools are over-tested. Lawmakers at the press conference said they had heard the gripes.
“We got the message from parents and teachers about how they feel about the testing process, the anxiety that some of their students feel and really the common-sense approach of what they need and what kind of tools they need to make sure that their children or that their students are getting a year's worth of learning in a year's worth of time,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.
Sprowls is set to become the speaker of the House after the 2020 elections.
The legislation is backed by the influential Foundation for Florida's Future, an organization founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush to guard his work on education accountability. The foundation and other testing supporters have come under siege from the public pushback against testing in recent years.
Still, the legislation, highlighted at an event Wednesday at the Capitol, doesn't get rid of any of the exams that parents, students and teachers have complained about.
“It doesn't eliminate any tests,” Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said in response to a reporter's question.
When the reporter underscored the title that lawmakers gave the legislation, she pointed out that it would limit the amount of time when school districts can administer exams.
“It does reduce the testing window, but I don't know if actually eliminates any tests,” Flores said.
Supporters said the one-week window for local tests was aimed at prompting districts to get rid of any exams that couldn't meet that standard.
Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said the local tests contributed more to the current backlash from parents than the state assessments, as districts try to measure their students ahead of the state exams.
“That's what produced, I think, the overwhelming feeling that kids are just being over-tested anywhere,” said Diaz, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees public school spending. “A lot of those tests are local because districts just want to see where their students are. And I don't blame them. But, unfortunately, we have to clear the path for learning to go on.”
After the event, Diaz told a reporter he didn't think there were too many state tests, but added, “I think we always have to evaluate that, because things change.”
Whether the bills could command support from groups like the Florida Education Association, the state's main teachers union and one of the organizations pushing back on over-testing, remains unclear. Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the FEA, said in an email that the group was still studying the proposal.
“There are some elements of the proposal we agree with, others that may be concerning,” Pudlow said. “We'll be seeking clarification on some of those areas of concern.”
The legislation at least makes some nods in the direction of specific ideas that have been floated to help lighten the testing load in Florida, but doesn't go as far as more sweeping suggestions.
For example, Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the Senate's education budget-writing panel, has said there is “a good chance” that legislation he is planning to address testing will recommend doing away high school tests not required by federal law. The bill unveiled Wednesday would not do that.
And Sen. Tom Lee, R- Thonotosassa, has pushed for the state to allow at least some students to use scores on national tests like the SAT and the Preliminary SAT in lieu of state assessments, like the high-school graduation exam.
Diaz emphasized the need to study how well those tests line up with the state's education standards before going down that road.
“All of those conversations have occurred without us taking an actual deep-dive look at whether that is actually even viable,” he said.
During a committee meeting last month, that argument didn't appear to persuade Lee.
"If you have a child that is performing well on the PSAT to the point where they're then going on to make (a high score) on the SAT, what else do we need to know?” he said.
“And if they're not doing as well as we hope to on our (state tests) after accomplishing those scores on the PSAT and the SAT, maybe it's our standards that are the problem, not the test.”