State lawmakers look to address 'COVID slide'

As the state’s standardized testing "season" looms for students, teachers and schools, proposals that would help accommodate for what is being called the "COVID slide" are receiving bipartisan support in the Florida Senate.

The proposals are aimed at grappling with widening achievement gaps and other educational setbacks caused by difficulties with virtual learning and school disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday approved a bill (SB 200), filed by Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, that seeks to allow parents of students in kindergarten through eighth grades to keep children in their current grade levels for next school year. The bill also was earlier approved by the Senate Education Committee.

"I do believe that the children who have had the biggest COVID learning slide have been the ones who are learning remotely. And I do think we need to give this as an opportunity for parents because they know their children the best," Berman said Wednesday. 

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Meanwhile, Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, is sponsoring a proposal (SB 886) that would prevent students’ test scores this year from counting against them when it comes to graduation or advancing to the next grade level. Also under Thurston’s bill, test scores wouldn’t have bearing on teacher evaluations, and schools with lagging test scores would not be penalized with lower school grades under the state’s accountability system.

"Testing data will not be used for decisions regarding teacher effectiveness, student retention, graduation, school turnaround or school grades," Thurston said of his bill when it advanced from the Senate Education Committee last week. "Instead, statewide assessment data will be collected to provide learning support for students who have regressed due to the impacts of the pandemic."

Only one member of the Senate Education Committee, Hialeah Republican Manny Diaz Jr., voted against Thurston’s bill.

"I think the issue with that bill is, it’s too encompassing. And it puts aside all of our accountability measures, while this is clearly a temporary situation with COVID," Diaz told the News Service of Florida on Wednesday.

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"We really need to give the Department (of Education) a chance, number one, to decide if they’re going to ask for the federal waiver, because that affects our federal funding, if we don’t have some of those measures in place," Diaz said.

The federal government requires 95 percent of Florida students in grades 3 through 8 to sit for math and English-language arts exams. The Biden administration and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran both appear to be forging ahead with a plan to keep standardized testing in place for the current school year.

"What we do know, what the president has said, what many of you (lawmakers) have said is, we need to test, we need to have that diagnostic," Corcoran said during a discussion with Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, streamed on Jones’ Facebook page Monday.

Corcoran added that he "elongated the testing season" through an emergency order signed Feb. 15, giving an additional two weeks for state standardized exams to be administered.

"So, you eliminate a lot of the risks of … now you can have that 6 feet of distance, you can have the masks and the hand sanitizer, and do it safely," Corcoran told Jones.

Corcoran contends standardized testing is paramount in gauging how students have regressed or progressed during the school year. The commissioner said Monday that roughly 65 percent to 70 percent of Florida students are back in classrooms getting in-person instruction.

"What we have to do as people who care about our education community and care about our students, is we have to confront the brutal facts," he said. "And to know the brutal facts, we have to get some sort of measurement."

Meanwhile, a coalition of district school superintendents is asking Corcoran to request waivers from the federal government related to accountability requirements.

Pinellas County Superintendent Michael Grego, president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, wrote to Corcoran last week urging the commissioner to seek waivers because of how the pandemic has interfered with learning.

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"Many students and staff members have missed time at school due to the illness itself or mandatory quarantine periods of up to two weeks at a time," Grego wrote. "Also, student engagement has and continues to be a challenge."

Grego told Corcoran in the letter that the federal government is "inviting states to seek certain waivers to be as flexible as possible in both the administration of those assessments and the ways in which the results are used." 

Under Berman’s proposal, which got a substantial overhaul during Wednesday’s meeting of the education appropriations panel, parents or guardians would have to send written requests by June 30 to school principals to retain their children in the current grades. Parents would have to provide an "academic reason" for holding their children back, and those students would have to remain in the grade level for the full year.

Among the additions to Berman’s measure Wednesday, a principal who receives a parent’s request would have to "inform the student’s teachers of the retention request and collaboratively discuss with the parent or guardian any basis for agreement or disagreement."

Also, the proposal would introduce an option to holding students back. 

"In lieu of retention, the principal, teachers, and parent or guardian may collaborate to develop a customized 1-year education plan for the student with the intent of helping the student return to grade level readiness by the end of the next academic year," the measure says.

Under the bill, that customized plan could include mid-year promotion to the next grade, summer school or supplemental education support.