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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Mar. 1, 201712:00 PM EST

School testing debate teed up again in session

by: Brandon Larrabee The News Service of Florida

The testing wars have returned to Tallahassee.

Two years after widespread computer problems undermined confidence in the state’s new standardized tests and sparked a political firestorm, lawmakers are once again floating ideas to reduce high-stakes exams in Florida schools.

Critics of the state’s testing system say that reflects the fact that 2015 legislation has done little to tame complaints that children are spending too much time taking assessments and too little time learning.

An “opt-out” movement, which argues parents should be able to tell their children to refuse to answer questions on high-stakes tests, has pushed its claims into court.

Once again, the testing system that was a key part of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education legacy is under siege.

“At long last, that pressure has built up so much that even a Legislature that has long been in thrall to Jeb Bush’s foundation ... has started to listen,” said Bob Schaeffer, a Florida resident and public-education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which is critical of high-stakes exams.

As the annual legislative session prepares to start Tuesday, the battle over testing has been to some extent overshadowed by Senate President Joe Negron’s ambitious plans to overhaul higher education in an effort to boost the state’s 12 public universities.

Negron has pledged to increase spending on higher education and enrich scholarship programs.

But the testing fight has drawn attention. Even the Foundation for Florida’s Future, established by Bush to help safeguard his legacy, has rallied behind what supporters are calling the “Fewer, Better Tests” legislation (HB 773 and SB 926).

That proposal, though, does not explicitly do away with any of the tests causing parents and teachers to complain. It instead focuses on narrowing the teaching window by requiring the state’s language-arts and math tests to be administered in the last three weeks of a school year, with the exception of the 3rd-grade reading exam.

It also would require the scores for any tests used by local school districts be provided to teachers within a week, instead of the month currently allowed by law —something that could pare down some of those exams.

And it calls for the state to conduct a study of whether college-entrance exams are closely aligned with Florida’s high school standards, with an eye on potentially using the entrance exams as at least a partial replacement for the state’s graduation tests.

Schaeffer dismissed the legislation as the work of the foundation, which also has a national counterpart, to provide cover in Florida using the same “slogan and lack of content that they’re advocating nationally.”

Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the Senate education budget committee, said the current testing window is a real problem.

He also said the time unnecessarily spent on tests costs the state $1 billion or more each year. He supports pairing some of the provisions with SB964, which would get rid of the requirement for end-of-course tests in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics.

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