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Assessment

Long a Testing Bastion, Florida Plans to End ‘Outdated’ Year-End Exams

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 14, 2021 5 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday that he is working to replace the state’s annual standardized tests in the spring with “progress monitoring” starting the next school year.

The state will still administer its summative assessment, the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA), this year, DeSantis said. But he said the change to the state’s assessment policy would provide more timely and useful information to teachers and parents, and reduce the testing burden for students and schools by 75 percent.

DeSantis said that he will be working with state lawmakers to craft legislation enacting the change, so it remains to be seen what the policy shift will look like in practice. But in principle, it represents a change from annual tests in the spring to shorter checks of student progress during the school year. He also announced on Tuesday that the new testing regimen will be called the Florida Assessments of Student Thinking.

If the move comes to fruition, it will be a major shift for one of the largest states by K-12 enrollment, although it will still have to meet certain federal testing requirements. Starting with former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999, when he signed the “A-Plus Plan” into law instituting statewide exams in grades 3-10, Florida came to rely significantly on—and represent—test results with respect to education policy. Through a group he began after he left office, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Bush also helped champion the value of standardized exams, although Bush’s foundation called for fewer, better tests several years ago.

It remains to be seen if policymakers make changes to policies that hinge on test scores. The FSA, for example, typically makes up a significant part of Florida’s K-12 education accountability system. “We’re going to continue to measure results, because we think that’s important,” DeSantis said Tuesday.

But DeSantis made it clear he believes that a new testing regimen is necessary. He called ending the current tests the “final step” in ending the Common Core State Standards in Florida, although the link between the announcement and the standards wasn’t immediately clear. As governor, DeSantis has hit out against the common core, and in fact last year declared that he had eliminated it when the state released new content standards.

DeSantis said the new “progress monitoring” system will create opportunities to check in on student progress in the fall, winter, and spring. He pitched the idea as one that would better serve students, teachers, and parents.

“It is the year 2021. The FSA is quite frankly outdated. It takes days to administer,” DeSantis, a Republican, said in a press conference. “It is not customizable to each student. ... It fails to provide timely information to parents.”

ESSA still requires statewide annual testing by states

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal law governing K-12 education, requires annual statewide testing in certain grades and subjects. ESSA allows for states to use multiple, interim assessments over the course of a school year instead of a single, summative test like the FSA, although a report published by the Council of Chief State School Officers notes that such assessments must be statewide. These interim tests must still produce a single, summative score.

Florida could craft new interim assessments that would abide by federal law, but DeSantis’ announcement is long on slogans and short on important details, at least for now, said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.

While DeSantis’ announcement will likely get a lot of public support, Polikoff said he is skeptical that Florida will actually be able to reduce the burden of testing by 75 percent after switching to the new system. One question Polikoff said the state must answer: Will Florida essentially chop the FSA into multiple parts and administer it over the course of the school year, making it easier to provide results to teachers and others relatively quickly, or do something more nuanced?

He also said that using interim assessments for high stakes can diminish their value. Ensuring that schools administer such interim tests in a standardized way will also be crucial, Polikoff added.

“No one’s dying to administer the state assessments,” Polikoff said. “I don’t think it’s obvious what the wise decision is here.”

In response to questions about Florida’s announcement, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said, “The Florida Department of Education has not communicated with the Department about this issue. A state has discretion to establish a standards and assessment system, provided that it meets the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act.”

Separately, DeSantis has clashed with the Biden administration about his attempts to restrict mask mandates in local school districts. Last week, the Education Department opened a civil rights investigation into the issue of whether the state’s policy about masks is denying educational rights to certain students.

Resistance to end-of-year standardized exams required by the federal government grew over the last decade, although lawmakers kept the basic testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 when they passed ESSA in 2015. The Education Department granted blanket waivers from ESSA’s testing mandates for the 2019-20 year in the early days of the pandemic, although the agency generally rejected efforts by states to cancel or replace their end-of-year exams in the spring of this year.

Through an ESSA pilot program, the federal government has supported efforts by states to create assessment models that differ from the traditional exams schools administer in the spring.

Florida began using the FSA in 2015.

The Florida Education Association expressed support for the idea pitched by DeSantis. Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County schools in Florida, one of the largest districts in the country, praised DeSantis, saying the change would enable “real-time progress monitoring data enable timely academic recalibration opportunities that are right for Florida’s kids.”

At DeSantis’ press conference, Sarah Hall, the 2020 teacher of the year for Seminole County schools in Florida, said using the type of approach supported by the governor had produced “more-focused, more-precise projections for student achievement.”

“Progress monitoring has made a significant impact in my classroom,” Hall said.

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