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Senators could be ready for more testing changes

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(Greg Kilday/CNN)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Several senators seemed ready Wednesday to move forward with legislation that would allow school districts to administer tests like the SAT and ACT instead of using the controversial Florida Standards Assessments to measure student learning.

After hearing from officials from standardized testing companies, members of the Senate committee charged with writing the state's education budget sounded largely positive about the idea of giving districts a choice among tests.

"I guess the question then is, well, why didn't we do this already, or why are we even questioning whether or not we should do it now?" said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

While some senators raised issues they said would need to be worked out before approving legislation allowing the change (SB 1360), none of the committee's members spoke against the bill. Senate Education PreK-12 Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said he had "a little bit of pause when I look at the timeline," which calls for the new tests to be used as soon as the following school year.

But Legg quickly added that his questions weren't meant to signal an unwillingness to consider the legislation.

"I think this is great stuff," Legg said.

If lawmakers approve the proposal, it would mark the second time in as many years that the Legislature has overhauled the state's testing system. Parent outrage and a technological meltdown plagued the Florida Standards Assessments last year and prompted lawmakers to pass a bill aimed at reining in state testing.

The state is in the second year of a six-year, $220 million deal with American Institutes for Research, a non-profit group that developed the Florida Standards Assessments. But the turmoil around the test prompted Montford's group to say in September that its members had "lost confidence" in the state's education-accountability system.

"When all the players on the field and all the coaches on the sidelines no longer believe that the game is being called according to fair rules, it's very, very difficult to have a meaningful experience," said Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican who chairs the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee and is sponsoring the current legislation.

The main options for districts under the legislation would likely be the SAT and a preliminary version of the test, at least for high school students, and the ACT and ACT Aspire, developed to test students beginning in the third grade.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has expressed concern about the proposal because the measure would mean that students might be taking tests that were "no longer aligned to what's being taught" in the state public schools. But the company officials who testified Wednesday said that wasn't a concern.

"In most cases, as I said, the alignment --- particularly with Florida --- is extremely high," said Jack Buckley, senior vice president for research at the College Board, which administers the SAT. "It's a very strong alignment."

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Gaetz brushed off a question about whether the bill could add more confusion to the state's testing system after years of change. He pointed out that many Florida students already take the SAT or the ACT.

"This isn't a matter of saying, well, now we're going to have something brand new," he said. "This is a matter of saying, let's assess once. Let's not make a student take two or three tests on the same material."

Gaetz' legislation doesn't have a counterpart in the House, but he said lawmakers there are expected to propose a committee bill that would closely track his legislation.