Democrats target school accountability, focusing on test scores during pandemic

With Florida students set to take state standardized tests in the coming months, Democratic lawmakers are pushing legislation to prevent students’ test scores from counting against them.

The proposal (HB 359 and SB 886) is intended to "mitigate the inequity in our schools resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic," Sen. Perry Thurston, one of the bill’s sponsors, told reporters on Tuesday.

"Testing data yielding from the 2020-21 academic year should not be used for decisions regarding student retention and graduation, teacher effectiveness or school grades," said Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Thurston and state Rep. Robin Bartleman, a Weston Democrat who sponsored the House proposal, said Florida’s standardized test scores should be used only to inform instruction and identify students’ needs.

There’s been "nothing typical" about the current school year for Florida families, Bartleman said, pointing to difficulties arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

"Teachers and students lost family members, faced housing and food insecurity, faced quarantine, and many of our students are dealing with mental health issues. Now is not the time to use the accountability system punitively," Bartleman said during Tuesday’s video conference with reporters.

The Democrats’ proposal already has some support from local school officials. Broward County Chief Academic Officer Dan Gohl is endorsing the legislation.

"This entire school year, from the Panhandle to the Keys, there have been a variety of school opening dates, of school teaching modalities, and our students and teachers have not been in the conditions which the tests and the accountability system presume," Gohl said during the press conference.

Under the Democrats' proposal, students’ performance on standardized tests could not be used "for purposes of determining grade 3 retention" or high school graduation.

The House and Senate bills, which were both filed within the past two weeks, have not been scheduled yet for a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Still, Thurston said he is optimistic about bipartisan backing.

"I don’t think it’s going to require massive Republican support --- that’s because I think they agree with us," Thurston said.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran canceled statewide exams at the end of the last academic year, after schools were closed in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The state Department of Education last week advised district school superintendents that a yearly English-proficiency exam for students who primarily speak other languages will be made optional this year.

So far, education officials have not given similar flexibility for other state assessments.

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