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Julie Delegal: Silent victory for Florida's education activists

On April 9, the Florida Legislature quickly and quietly passed an educational testing reform bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Tuesday – a significant victory for advocates and educators. But – except for the Duval County PTA – advocates don’t appear to be taking credit for its passage.

House Bill 7069 reduces duplicative testing, eliminates periodic progress-monitoring tests and lets schools off the hook for negative consequences related to school grades this year, all while calling for a study on the validity of the new, Common-Core-based Florida Standards Assessments. Additionally, by reducing the percentage of test-score-based data that determines teacher efficacy, the law dials down some of the high stakes attached to the testing culture in Florida.

But instead of claiming credit for five years of steady hammering against the centerpiece of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s ed-reform package, i.e., high-stakes testing, many advocates and educators are criticizing the law for not doing enough.

Longtime advocate and co-founder of Parents Across America, Rita Solnet, told the Tampa Bay Times that the law needs to go further and hold children harmless from the results of this year’s new Florida Standards Assessments.

She’s right, of course.

As are Colleen Wood of the Network for Public Education and Kathleen Oropeza of Fund Education Now for saying the same thing: Don’t use this year’s yet-to-be-validated test to determine student grade promotions or graduations.

When you’re right, you’re right. Unfortunately, Sen. Bill Montford’s proposal to hold students harmless, by essentially declaring 2015 a field-testing year, didn’t gain traction in the legislature. Life-altering decisions about grade promotions and graduations will be determined using a test that may not be valid or reliable – particularly in light of the technical debacle that marked its rollout. (Florida Department of Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is saying that the reliability study won’t be finished until next winter.)

Are grassroots education advocates missing the bigger picture? Most of them are certainly overlooking a victory that’s far from small.

While no legislative act accomplishes everything, the new law goes miles toward reducing testing and, most notably, shrinks the test-score-based component of teacher evaluations from 50 percent to 33 percent. It’s not clear that either percentage is supported by research, which tells us that test scores aren’t very reliable, over time, as indicators of teacher quality. But decreasing the test-score percentage that goes into teacher evaluations should translate into less pressure and lowered stakes in Florida’s infamous high-stakes testing scheme. While it doesn’t eliminate high-stakes stress on our children, it might alleviate some of it.

In other words, the “Sword of Damocles” hanging over Florida educators may have dulled a little. That “sword” threatened to fall no matter what a teacher chose to do:

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Should she depart from pacing guidelines to deepen her students’ understanding of the material, and risk not covering everything that would appear on the FSA? Or, should she stick to the nearly impossible, high-speed pace and risk glossing over important concepts that would appear on the FSA?

Either way, the 50 percent teacher-evaluations piece ramped up the pressure on teachers, which, in turn, ramped up the pressure on students. Knocking it down to 33 percent should turn the relief-valve at least a smidge.

The original test-score requirements were notoriously implemented in the form of Senate Bill 6, which was vetoed by Crist in 2010 only to be rammed through the legislature in 2011 under Rick Scott. The passage of the newer incarnation, SB 736 aka the “Student Success Act,” spurred discord in what had been the lockstep political hierarchy headed by the man whose reign never really ended, Jeb Bush.

The test-based component of teacher evaluations was not an easy victory for Bush, to whom lawmakers still report. The CEO for Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, Patricia Levesque, remains a fixture at education committee hearings in both chambers, years after her service as Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education.

Public education advocates who have fought high-stakes testing and privatization refer to her as “Florida’s 41st senator.” One wonders if she even bothers to remove the Foundation for Florida’s Future logo from the legislation she drafts.

As usual, Levesque’s stated preferences became law once again this year. Despite the hard-won battle of 2011, she told WFSU in January that testing should be reduced, and that the portion of teacher evaluations based on test scores should shrink as well.

That’s something that public education advocates and educators have been working on for at least five years. Why would they step back now and let the Bush camp claim all the credit?

The war against Bush-brand education reform continues, yes, but HB 7069 contains laurels for public education advocates on a few battlefronts.

The message? Keep fighting. Eventually, you’ll be heard. Who cares if the Bush camp flip-flopped only to pacify Florida parents because they’ve got White House fever? That’s one way politics works, you know. Keep chanting what the changes should be, build a network to join the chorus, and don’t let up until some politician can pretend it was his idea, all along.

Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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