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Lawmakers Considering More Testing Changes

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Less than a year after lawmakers overhauled public-school testing following the botched rollout of the new Florida Standards Assessments, the debate over how to measure student learning is far from over.

A leading senator on education issues is working on legislation that would allow schools to use tests other than the statewide standardized exams, which are used in some graduation and promotion decisions, teacher evaluations and school grades.

Democrats and education groups continue to call for the state's accountability system to be suspended, with test scores being used instead to help set learning goals for schools to be measured against. Some have recommended giving schools a grade of "I," or incomplete, in the meantime.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, declined to rule out any options during a breakfast meeting with reporters this week. He noted that the State of Board of Education will also soon approve "cut scores" setting out how scores on the tests will relate to different achievement levels.

"I think all of those probably are up for discussion," Gardiner said. "You have a board that still has to make some recommendations as well."

In the Senate, the issue has been taken up by former President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Gaetz, who now chairs the Senate committee that oversees education spending, said Wednesday he's working on legislation that would allow school districts to use alternative tests for the same purposes that the Florida Standards Assessments are used for now.

Gaetz, who said a bipartisan group of senators would be involved with the legislation, said "brand names" would be offered as the alternative tests, but no final decision has been made on which exams could be used. He also stressed that using different tests would be optional.

"The idea is not to take the place of the Florida Standards Assessment," Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County schools superintendent, said. "The idea is to prove an alternative for districts and for students."

Lawmakers tried last year to soothe some of the angst over the new assessments and the feelings of parents who said their children spend too much time on standardized tests. The Legislature put a hold on the use of student test data for school grades, teacher evaluations and student promotion to fourth grade until the Florida Standards Assessments, or FSA, could be validated --- something that happened in September.

It also scrapped a law requiring school districts to come up with end-of-course tests in classes where the state doesn't administer such exams; capped the amount of time students can spend on state and school-district tests at 45 hours a year; and reduced the portion of a teacher's evaluation tied to student performance from the current 50 percent to one-third.

But the changes did little to end the debate about testing. About three weeks after the independent review said the tests were valid for most of the purposes they're used for, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents said its members had "lost confidence" in the state's accountability system.

"We have a credibility problem with the FSA," Gaetz said Wednesday.

Gardiner did not directly answer a question about whether there are still too many tests in Florida, instead pointing to the changes lawmakers made last year.

"I think a lot of parents still believe there are," Gardiner said.

Other ideas have already begun to crop up. Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, this week filed a bill (HB 903) that would suspend the use of scores on the state tests for school grades or decisions about student graduation or promotion for the current school year and the next.

Jones said the state needs to pause and gather information on how well students do on the tests, then use that data to measure how much scores improve in future years. He said the current debate over testing is unlikely to fade quickly.

"It's not going to go away," Jones said. "Not until we give confidence to our teachers and our parents."

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