Florida Senate targets school testing overhaul on day 1

Andrew Atterbury

The Florida Senate’s education panel on Tuesday unanimously backed a bill that would reshape how the state tests its public school students, laying the groundwork for carrying out one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ major priorities on the opening day of the 2022 session.

The proposal, which scored rare bipartisan support, aims to give parents and teachers quicker feedback on student performance while scaling back the length of time spent testing in school. Although the measure won the early approval of lawmakers, the state’s largest teachers union still has qualms about the bid to replace the Florida Standards Assessment tests that students currently take, arguing that the proposal doesn’t go far enough to cut down on exams.

“While it is important to embrace high academic standards and to measure student achievement, the FSA test is not the best way to do it,” DeSantis said Tuesday during an address to lawmakers.

Breaking it down: FL SB1048 (22R), introduced by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. (R-Hialeah), would scrap the FSA and replace Florida’s former testing program with a new computer-based progress monitoring system to periodically measure student performance.

Students would be subjected to state testing at the beginning and middle of the school year under the Diaz bill, and would later sit for a more comprehensive end-of-year assessment. The bill calls on school districts to produce results from the local tests assessments to parents and teachers on a rapid turnaround — within one week — in hopes of painting a clearer education picture for students.

That final end-of-year assessment, set to be administered in the spring, would serve as the true FSA replacement used by the Florida Department of Education for accountability, measuring third-grade retention, high school graduation, grades and improvement scores.

The rapid education feedback promised by the proposal helped win the support of the full Senate Education Committee, including Democratic lawmakers who typically oppose most Republican education bills.

“I don’t think we understand how much this is going to change educators, and how parents look at this,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-Miami Gardens), a former high school chemistry teacher.

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, contends that SB 1048 fails to truly scale back testing or get rid of high stakes end-of-the-year exams students currently take.

School districts “could see a reduction in testing time,” but that would come from schools scrapping their local progress monitoring tools for the new state program, according to a bill analysis.

Further, the FEA doesn’t like that Florida’s youngest students — even kindergartners — will be steered toward taking online exams instead of the traditional pencil and paper method. The online progress monitoring system is meant to give all schools in the state an identical testing format where data can be transferred to any district if a student transfers.

“We really want to work with the sponsor in the Senate and House to try to make sure it’s done right,” FEA President Andrew Spar said in an interview. “We see this as an opportunity to really change how we support teachers and students.”

What’s next: The Senate’s testing bill is expected to undergo some tweaks in its next committee stops. The House has put forward a similar bill tackling state assessments, but there are some differences compared to the Senate proposal.

“It has taken a long time and is still going to require some work,” Diaz said Tuesday. “When you endeavor into changing your accountability system and your testing — it’s a big deal.”