TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Amid continued backlash over Florida’s testing regimen, the state may stop holding back third grade students who fail the state’s standardized tests.
If Florida lawmakers agree to the change, it would mark a major departure from a policy pushed into law by then-Gov. Jeb Bush who decried “social promotion” when he campaigned for governor. Bush vowed to end the practice as part of his A+ education law enacted in 1999. The law tied promotion to the fourth grade to how students did on a standardized reading test.
A Senate panel on Wednesday voted in favor of suspending the policy until the state’s new standardized test is independently validated. The test is based heavily on Common Core standards and a rollout this month of an online version for middle and high school students has been marred by technical glitches.
The vote on Wednesday came after a sharp debate, where both Democratic and some Republican legislators, argued that the state’s heavy reliance on the high-stakes test has gotten out of control. The Florida Legislature is considering bills that would roll back some testing requirements.
“I think if we’re all honest with the people of Florida we would admit right now we have a train wreck on our hands with our educational system,” said Sen. Alan Hays, a Republican from Umatilla.
Hays on Wednesday tried to get the Senate Appropriations Committee to halt school grades as well as all other requirements tied to the tests until an in-depth review was conducted. He also wanted to verify that school districts are capable of giving the tests online.
Bush has been touting his education policies as he prepares for a likely presidential bid that is supported by many of Florida’s top elected Republicans, including the two leaders of the Legislature. Bush did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Florida expanded the use of standardized testing under Bush’s plan to grade schools. The A to F grades were used to offer rewards and impose sanctions. Students who failed the tests could be held back in third grade or not allowed to graduate from high school.
Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a group started by Bush, contended that the policy of holding back third graders has been a success.
“For more than a decade, Florida has placed a command focus on reading through early identification, intervention and retention as a last resort,” Levesque said in a statement. “The results have been transformative: our students outperformed the national average in every subgroup for fourth grade reading on the most recent Nation’s Report Card.”
The number of required tests has grown over the last decade and they also took on more importance as they became part of the measurements used to evaluate teachers.
Legislators entered this year’s session promising to rein in the number of tests after hearing complaints from parents, students and school officials.
The Florida House has already passed a bill that scales back and eliminates some tests including one required of 11th graders. But the measure does not include the same provisions as the Senate legislation. GOP legislators in the House have also rejected changes pushed by Democrats, including one that calls for suspending the school-grading system as the state transitions to its new set of tests.
The panel – which makes up nearly half of the 40-member Senate -instead agreed to a compromise that would suspend the third grade retention policy until the test is validated. A policy requiring 10th graders to pass the test for graduation would also be suspended. Sen. John Legg, a sponsor of the testing bill, said there would be no way to validate the test in time for when schools must decide whether to hold students back.
Legg, however, pointed out that parents would still be told if a student did poorly on the reading test.