Jac Wilder VerSteeg: 2015 might bring high-stakes testing reform to Florida

Candidates mouthed the words “education” a lot in 2014, but it was not a decisive election issue. Still, against the odds, 2015 might be the year the Florida Department of Education makes a sincere effort to make its testing policies reasonable.

There has been legitimate concern that Rick Scott, safe in his second term and no longer facing a re-election battle, would revert from moderation to his old ways. That would mean new attacks on public education and teachers or, at best, indifference.

But Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is following through on Gov. Scott’s campaign promise to thoroughly review high-stakes testing in the state. There are two reasons to hope this won’t result only in a straight-to-the-shelf study: The timing is right, and Pam Stewart is better situated than her politicized predecessors to oversee a competent job.

First, the timing. Anger over high-stakes testing has been building. Parents and students say the unrelenting testing puts too much stress on students and eats up valuable instructional time. Educators say the state has used the tests to punish them. That rising anger coincides with rising suspicion about the Common Core State Standards that Florida is adopting.

Forces that frequently would be in opposition to each other – teacher unions and Tea Partiers – are allies on high-stakes testing, even if they dislike it for different reasons.

At this point, no Florida politician with the possible exception of Jeb Bush has his flag firmly planted on the mountainous mess of high-stakes testing. And even Jeb can come out of it OK so long as, in the end, the state DOE can declare with some truth that it has preserved and improved a system of “accountability.”

That conclusion can be reached easily enough by reducing the amount of high-stakes testing and, perhaps more importantly, by making better use of the results of such tests. The school grading formula, in particular, needs to be fixed. That will become even more evident in 2015 as students leave the FCAT behind and take a new batch of tests pegged to Common Core. A significant drop in scores is likely, and the state can and should acknowledge that some consequences need to be put on hold while the new system is phased in.

Now for Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. She is not Tony Bennett, and she is not Gerard Robinson, two predecessors who were chosen for their ideology rather than their education prowess. Both those conservative stars – famous for favoring vouchers, high-stakes tests and charter schools – flamed out quickly and embarrassingly.

Stewart, in contrast, actually has taught in Florida schools in Hillsborough and Marion counties. She has been at the state DOE off and on since 2004, rising to become chancellor of public schools. After Bennett quit, she stepped in as interim and the state Board of Education, with Gov. Rick Scott’s approval, then decided to give her the job permanently.

Stewart is thus an education wonk and bureaucratic insider. That’s exactly what’s needed for this kind of reform job. Obviously, she could not keep her position if she opposed the governor and Legislature on their basic education policies. But both the governor and the Legislature have been signaling a desire for better testing procedures, and so has the Board of Education, which has expressed extreme frustration with ad-hoc fixes like artificially inflating school grades to keep from panicking parents.

The Legislature surely won’t back off from its support for charter schools and private school vouchers. But in the area of high-stakes testing and its consequences, public schools could find that 2015 is a good year.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Jac VerSteeg


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