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Florida Senate says yes to more recess, fewer tests

Questions remain as Senate targets testing

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Senate unanimously approved legislation Thursday aimed at limiting the amount of time public school students spend on standardized tests and ensuring that elementary students get recess, amid speculation that some of the changes might be undone.

Senators voted 38-0 to send their version of the legislation (HB 549) to the House, which has been cooler on far-reaching changes to the state's testing regime and to the idea of mandating recess.

The legislation would make several changes that parents and the Senate have pushed. Students would no longer be required to take the end-of-course test in Algebra II, and standardized language-arts and math tests in the third, fourth and fifth grades would be paper-based starting in the 2018-19 school year.

Districts would no longer have to factor a contentious formula for student learning growth into teacher performance reviews. Schools would have to administer tests in a shorter time frame, and the state would conduct a study to see if national exams can be used instead of state tests in some high school courses.

The bill also incorporates a Senate proposal on recess that seemed to have largely stalled in the House. The provision would require schools to provide 20 minutes of recess every weekday.

The main aim of the legislation was to limit testing, something that has increasingly antagonized parents. Lawmakers have begun to concede in recent years that they went too far in using standardized exams as part of the state's school-accountability system.

"We had a proliferation of tests, over a period of years, to the point quite frankly where teachers couldn't teach and students began to dread coming to school," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who also heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "We simply overdid a good thing."

But Montford and most of the other legislators who spoke about the bill Thursday argued that it didn't go far enough. Some senators have pushed for the state to allow students who performed well on tests like college entrance exams and Advanced Placement tests to avoid the state's high- school assessments.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said the tests could be compared, despite the qualms of some education reformers and state officials who say a study is needed.

"We already know that," Lee said. "The Department of Education knows that. They just don't want to do it."

Whether the House will accept the changes, or even use the bill approved by the Senate on Thursday as the vehicle for changes, is unclear.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, did not directly answer questions from a reporter about whether the House would agree to the Senate bill. Instead, he suggested that budget-related "conforming" legislation could end up including some of the education provisions.

"Probably the bulk of that will be in a K-12 conforming bill, all the stuff you're talking about," he said.

There are already conforming bills that would encourage charter schools to operate in areas where traditional public schools are struggling and to expand the state's "Best and Brightest" teacher bonus program. The bill approved by the Senate on Thursday eased some requirements on charters, but not to the extent that the conforming bill might once House and Senate negotiators finish it.

Some senators were already anxiously discussing the possibility Thursday night that, after getting as far as they thought they could on the current legislation, it could still be unwound.

"My concern and my fear is that all that hard work, all that collaboration, by this esteemed body of which I am so proud to be a member, so humbled to be a member, may be taken away in the form of a conforming bill that will come to us with maybe a day to review it," said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale. "From what I'm hearing, it's going to take away a lot of things in this bill right now."