The chairman of a Senate committee that oversees public education filed legislation Monday aimed at cutting back on testing time in Florida schools, opening a debate about how to limit the scope and importance of state assessments.
The legislation (SB 616), sponsored by Senate Education PreK-12 Chairman John Legg, would cap the amount of time students spend on state and local tests at 5 percent of their schools hours. The bill would authorize districts to use something other than tests to assess students in some courses. It would also revamp laws pushed through the Legislature in 2011 tying teachers’ evaluations and pay more closely to student performance.
“We need better, but fewer, tests,” Legg, R-Lutz, said in a prepared statement. “This bill maintains accountability, while creating a much needed framework on assessments, evaluations, and flexibility on implementation.”
The bill comes amid an emerging bipartisan consensus that Florida students are being tested too much. Even lawmakers who spearheaded the state’s accountability movement, which led to many of the testing requirements now on the books, are beginning to rethink things. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has launched a review of state testing.
The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, announced last month that it would not continue a court challenge to a separate education law because it had “opened a dialogue with the Senate president on a broad range of issues, including testing, special needs students and other public education concerns of paramount importance to the FEA.”
And the Foundation for Florida’s Future, an organization founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush to push for school accountability, has called for “fewer and better tests.”
The number of hours students will spend on the state’s main tests in many grades this academic year is actually lower than the number of hours students faced seven years ago, according to the Department of Education. But testing time this school year will be longer than in 2013-14, by more than two hours in several cases. And that doesn’t include other assessments required by the state that are administered by districts.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, called the legislation “a great beginning point for discussion” in a brief interview. But he said lawmakers still need to work with school districts on details, like the cap on student testing time.
“We may very well have state-required assessments that would violate that anyway,” he said.
Perhaps most strikingly, the legislation would partially roll back the “Student Success Act,” a sweeping overhaul of teacher evaluations approved four years ago over strident criticism from teachers unions and almost every Democrat in the Legislature. Under the bill, at least 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student learning growth, down from 50 percent.
The bill would also require at least 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on classroom teaching methods; the current law has no floor. Up to 30 percent of the evaluation could be based on other job duties.
But Montford, who opposed the performance-pay legislation when it passed the Senate, pushed back on the suggestion that the Legislature was retreating.
“I don’t see it as a lessening of high standards, or even a retreat from high levels of accountability. Quite to the contrary,” he said. “I see this as a reasonable approach to address a very complicated issue.”
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida