Upending FL statewide exams will likely be difficult; proposed testing system has few details

DeSantis administration plans to get rid of Florida Standards Assessments, but many questions are left unanswered

By: - September 21, 2021 7:00 am

Testing. Photo by Getty Images

It’s been a week since Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran made a sudden announcement: Within the next few school years, Florida will do away with major statewide assessments and switch to so-called progress monitoring — multiple assessments taken throughout the year to track individual student progress.

But at a roundtable discussion with state officials Monday, few details emerged on the proposed reforms, including how progress monitoring would replace the usual statewide assessments in reading and math.

In addition, participants said nothing at all about the role of the federal government and federal education law. The U.S. Department of Education would expect to weigh in and approve or disapprove a monumental change in statewide testing for Florida.

That said, “We typically come through on education and end up doing some big things, so we think we’re going to be okay on this,” DeSantis said at the Monday roundtable. He described the testing proposal as a “big deal,” and his administration will be “working really hard on this over the next few months and hopefully be able to get a big reform passed through (the Legislature).”

The Senate Education Committee will meet Tuesday as part of committee meetings leading up to the January legislative session, and state education officials will present information about the proposed testing reforms.

Questions unanswered

Robert Schaeffer, of FairTest, which promotes “fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools,” among other goals, says that the devil will be in the details on whether the move to progress monitoring will change the testing environment in Florida or if it’s all just political posturing.

“You’ll need to look at the specifics to see what the impact will really be,” Schaeffer told the Florida Phoenix. But the legislation is not yet available, according to the Florida House and Senate websites.

A vague timeline is posted on the Florida Department of Education’s website. For Schaeffer, the timeline raises more questions than answers. He rhetorically posed several questions in an email, including:

/ “What is a ‘new baseline’ for accountability?” (Meaning, the system that includes statewide testing and test results that determine if students have met reading and math standards.)

/ “Do students in the high school class of 2023 have to pass an exit exam; if so which one(s)?”

/ “Will progress monitoring scores now be (mis)used to determine grade promotion, graduation, school and district grades, teacher bonuses, voucher eligibility, etc?”

The Phoenix reached out to the Florida Department of Education for answers to questions about the proposed testing system, but education officials have not yet responded.

Federal concerns

Another one of Schaeffer’s concerns is whether the U.S. Department of Education will approve a system of progress monitoring that would replace statewide exams called Florida Standards Assessments.

Dating back to the Republican George W. Bush administration in early 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind required testing in most grades in reading and math and in some grades, science (the FSA does not include the science exam in Florida). The Democrat Barack Obama administration continued that testing regimen in the successor to NCLB — Every Student Succeeds Act.

The ESSA requires that states assess students on mathematics and language arts in 3rd grade through 8th grade and then once in high school. In addition, states are required to test students on science at least once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

DeSantis’ plan to do away with the FSA would only impact the assessments for mathematics and language arts. It’s not yet clear if the DeSantis administration plans to make similar changes to the statewide science exam in the future.

Schaeffer noted that the vague timeline for the testing reforms shows that the Florida Department of Education would “pause accountability” for the 2023-24 school year, meaning that the state would forego grade promotion issues, graduation mandates, school and district grades and other accountability measures. But Schaeffer believes that would “clearly require a federal waiver” related to federal education law.

How would progress monitoring work?

For decades, schools and teachers have been monitoring the progress of students. But Florida wants to use a broad progress monitoring system to take the place of the usual statewide exams.

Language in federal education law mentions that states can fulfill assessment requirements either through a single summative assessment or through “multiple statewide interim assessments during the course of the academic year that result in a single summative score that provides valid, reliable, and transparent information on student achievement or growth.”

An organization called the Northwest Evaluation Association, often referred to as the NWEA, provides progress monitoring programs to some states.

Abby Javurek, vice president of future impact and growth at NWEA, says that Florida’s move to a broad progress monitoring system could work, though it would be a first — the DeSantis administration believes Florida’s proposed reforms would be the first in the nation.

“Under ESSA, it actually does allow the test to be given throughout the year, as long as that determination that you’re trying to make about whether kiddos at your schools are reaching grade level or not,” Javurek told the Phoenix. “It’s based on grade level improvement and the grade-level standards that you’ve identified as ‘these are the things that kids are supposed to learn at this grade in my state.’ So, it (ESSA) expressly calls out that this is a way of doing that in the law.’”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.