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Politics

Testing Glitches, Political Drama Define Florida Education This Year

May 12, 2015 - 6:00pm

Schools almost out for summer -- and the 2015 Florida education yearbook was full of ups and downs for education in the Sunshine State.

Heres a recap of what made headlines this year in Florida education:


NEW YEAR, NEW STANDARDS

The 2014-2015 academic year was a busy one -- teachers, parents and students dove head first into the states new Common Core-aligned Florida Standards, which the Florida Department of Education promised would bring about a more advanced and rigorous way of learning for students statewide.

The state adopted the standards despite previous heavy criticisms from anti-Common Core groups, who feared they would take Florida a step backward and restrain students from reaching their full academic potential.

The state moved forward with implementing the standards anyway -- and it looks as if theyre here to stay.


BYE BYE, VOUCHER LAWSUIT (OR, PART OF IT)

After nearly two years of an epic legal battle over Floridas school voucher program, the states largest teachers union decided to call it quits in one lawsuit against the program which sends nearly 70,000 low-income students to private schools.

Lawyers for the Florida Education Association said state lawmakers had violated the state Constitution when they passed SB 850 last year, which created new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for special needs students. On top of creating new scholarships, the bill also expanded eligibility for the school voucher program.

In December, Chief Circuit Judge Charles Francis tossed out a lawsuit after ruling that the plaintiffs didnt show how the programs expansion would cause special injury.

The groups other lawsuit, which argues the voucher program is unconstitutional and funnels money away from public schools, still rages on.

STANDARDIZED TESTING GONE AWRY

It wasnt the Florida Standards which caused the most commotion statewide this year -- the award for the biggest flop of the 2014-2015 school year undoubtedly goes to the Florida Standards Assessment Test for being one of the most glitch-riddled assessments the state has ever seen.

FSA opponents warned there could be issues with the states new assessment test, but state education leaders likely didnt take those concerns too seriously until March rolled around and students sat down to take the FSA for the first time.

Screens went blank, leaving some students unable to complete their tests. Others couldnt log in to even begin the new assessment. Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart said the problems were a result of a cyber attack on the testing vendors server and said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would investigate the matter immediately.

By May, the state still had no answers as to who specifically initiated the cyber attack.


... AND GONE WRONG AGAIN

Criticisms of the FSA grew even louder in April after the second wave of technical malfunctions plagued the test. Last months issues once again left students unable to complete the assessment, but instead of a cyber attack, Commissioner Stewart blamed this round of problems on an unauthorized change to the test from American Institutes for Research, the company responsible for the FSA.

An enraged Stewart promised Florida would hold AIR accountable for wreaking havoc on a test already under heavy fire.

"This is unacceptable on the part of AIR, she said. We will hold AIR accountable for the disruption they have caused this state."


GOV. SCOTT: THERES TOO MUCH TESTING

Education groups and politicians dont tend to agree on everything, but they found common ground this year in the sentiment that Florida is simply oversaturated with tests.

For months, anti-testing groups pushed to create fewer tests in the Sunshine State, but it often seemed like all hope was lost until February when Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order to eliminate an English-language arts test for Floridas 11th-graders.

"We have too much testing," he said. "We need to spend more time on learning. We need this year to work with the Legislature to get something done."


LAWMAKERS AGREE, FIGHT BACK

Scotts call for state legislators to push back against excessive testing didnt fall on deaf ears. Despite the Legislature calling it quits early this year, the two chambers did pass a sweeping education reform bill.

Some of the provisions of the bill included earlier start dates, limiting testing time and eradicating end-of-course exams for subjects where theres already a statewide standardized test. Teachers will also be evaluated differently -- student performance will now only count for a third of teacher evaluations (it used to count for 40 percent).

Both the House and Senate speedily passed the massive education reform package. Some Democratic lawmakers tried to tack on amendments to temporarily pause school grades for the 2014-2015 school year, but those ideas were quickly squashed by Republican lawmakers.

Under the legislation, a new panel will hire an independent company to determine whether the FSA is a valid assessment test.

Scott signed the bill into law in April.

Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen by email at allison@sunshinestatenews.com or follow her on Twitter: @AllisonNielsen


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