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Senate panel approves testing bill amid troubles

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Amid conflicting reports about how well the state's troubled online school-testing platform is working, a key Senate committee voted Wednesday along party lines to approve a bill aimed at rolling back the number of exams students take.

The Senate PreK-12 Education Committee voted 7-4 to approve the measure (SB 616). The bill would permanently eliminate an 11th-grade language arts test that critics say is redundant; cap at 5 percent the share of students' time that can be spent on testing; and scrap a law requiring school districts to come up with end-of-course tests in classes where the state doesn't administer such an exam.

It would also allow schools and school districts to seek waivers from being assigned letter grades due to implementation issues with the state's new test and would reduce from 50 percent to a third the portion of a teacher's evaluation tied to student performance.

Republicans praised the measure, sponsored by committee Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz.

"What we are doing presently, what the law requires presently, the test that's in the queue presently, is not acceptable," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "This bill changes the status quo. If you vote no on this bill, you're not going back to wish-list items that we may have heard from presenters or constituents; you're going back to the status quo."

But Democrats said the bill didn't go far enough and said the Republicans were trying to move too swiftly. Some parents were also unimpressed.

"There's a contingency plan for everybody -- the teachers, the districts, school grades, everything, but there's no contingency plan for the students. ... If everybody else gets a reprieve, how come the students don't?" asked Meredith Mears, co-founder of a group called Florida Parents RISE, which is critical of the state's new standards and tests.

Debate over the issue has been roiled by problems plaguing the online administration of the state's new Florida Standards Assessment. Some parents and lawmakers are even suggesting that the bill allow schools to choose to administer exams on paper.

"The education of our children should not be an experiment in technological readiness," said Danielle Alexandre, a lobbyist for the Liberty First Network.

Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said it appeared that issues that have plagued the rollout of the Florida Standards Assessment, the state's new batch of standardized tests, had subsided on the third day of testing.

"It looks like everything is functioning today just as it should be," Stewart said shortly before noon Wednesday.

But later in the day, there were once again indications that the technology was struggling. In an email, Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning confirmed that there had been issues in his district.

"Some teachers had difficulties signing onto the test," he wrote. "Some students got on but then got kicked off and possibly (lost) answers. Not a good day."

Other districts were still in a holding pattern after suspending testing on Monday and Tuesday amid the technical hurdles. Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said his district would try to resume testing Thursday.

"If it breaks tomorrow, then (we've) got to suspend it probably indefinitely until we get some clear resolution to the issues," he said.

Already, there were calls from parents and activists to terminate the state's six-year, $220 million deal with American Institutes for Research, a non-profit group, to run the state's testing. Stewart has said AIR has taken responsibility for the snafus.

Some officials were supportive of considering whether to hit the company with sanctions for the botched beginning of the Florida Standards Assessment. Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Santa Rosa County had hired 18 substitute teachers in anticipation of full-time teachers administering the test -- only to encounter technical issues.

"If there have been workability issues that should have been foreseen and depending upon what the contract says, we ought to be asking that the state be made whole and the districts be made whole," he said.

Stewart would not answer directly whether the state would impose penalties on AIR.

"Too early for us to know that," she said. "We're working on resolving the issue, not on whether or not there will be sanctions."