Florida Senate takes aim at 3rd-grade retention, high school graduation tests

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | November 9, 2023

Florida’s third graders could move to fourth grade and high school students could earn diplomas, all without passing state tests, if a far-reaching Florida Senate proposal that would scrap key pieces of the state’s decades-old school accountability system becomes law.

A Senate education committee this week unveiled the proposal in a 50-page document that aims to “reduce regulations on public schools.” Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said in a memo to senators that the document includes ideas that are “bold,” “controversial” and, she conceded, might “not make it across the finish line.”

Among the most notable suggestions are eliminating requirements that third graders pass the state reading test or face being held back and high schoolers pass language arts and algebra exams to graduate. Both rules have been embedded in Florida law for more than 20 years.

The third-grade rule was part of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan for education that he signed into law in 1999. Florida has had an exit test for high school graduation since 1995, but it became tougher under the Bush administration’s accountability rules.

The two rules have been long-criticized by those who think high-stakes tests are punitive and should not be used for key academic decisions like promotion and graduation. Nearly 22,000 third graders were not promoted in 2022, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.

But the rules also have been praised as accountability measures that have helped improve the academic performance of Florida’s public school students. In 1998, for example, 47% of Florida’s fourth graders scored “below basic” on a national reading test and less than 25% were proficient or better.

By 2022, Florida was among the top 10 states in fourth-grade reading, with less than 30% “below basic” and 39% at proficient or above.

In a memo to senators, Passidomo said she wanted to “make certain we do not lose one inch of the accountability measures this Legislature has instituted over the last thirty years.”

But this year Florida embraced school choice, passing legislation (HB 1) that expanded school voucher programs so that all students are eligible for a state scholarship to private school.

That makes some public school accountability laws unnecessary, she wrote.

“I think we also need to recognize with HB 1, our role is changing,” she said. “Parents are more involved than ever before. Parents are the ultimate arbiter of performance. Parents will hold neighborhood schools, charter schools, and private schools accountable with their voices and their feet.”

Private schools that take state vouchers do not have to give their students state tests or use test scores to make promotion and graduation decisions.

Sen. Corey Simon, R- Tallahassee, said during a committee meeting Tuesday that eliminating the third-grade requirement would give Florida’s school districts “greater authority to determine students’ progression” and that getting rid of the high school testing rule would align Florida with about 30 other states that do not tie a diploma to passing exams.

The proposals would also push public schools to offer help to struggling readers sooner, he said, requiring them to “expand support and intervention in the early grades.”

Simon is chair of the Senate’s education committee, which will consider legislation on the proposals at a meeting next week.

HB 1, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in March, required the Florida Department of Education to review public school regulations with the aim of reducing bureaucratic rules. It asked educators and the public for their thoughts, receiving about 4,000 comments.

The department recommended numerous parts of the state education code for revision but did not suggest altering the rules on testing that the Senate proposed. Its suggestions included dropping duplicative reports and nixing state rules already covered by federal laws, for example.

“The Department did not include in our recommendation any statutory revisions or repeals that could potentially weaken our best in the nation accountability system or limit parents’ rights,” it wrote in its Nov. 1 report to the Senate.

A House panel this week also reviewed the department’s recommendations but, unlike the Senate, it did not discuss additional proposals beyond what the education department suggested.

Bill Montford, a former state senator who runs Florida’s school superintendent association, told the Senate its package of proposals would be welcomed by public school administrators as “music to their ears.”

The proposals would remove “red tape” and allow traditional, neighborhood public schools, “highly successful and the preferred choice of most of our families,” to operate on the same footing as private schools now accepting publicly funded vouchers, he said.

“Now is the time to make those bold and sometimes controversial decisions that will ensure a level playing field for all choices parents will have,” Montford added.

Sue Woltanski, a Monroe County School Board member and longtime critic of Florida’s accountability program, said she and other parents who think high-stakes testing, and all the time spent prepping for those exams, is “sucking the joy out of their kids’ classrooms” need to let lawmakers know they would support the change.

“This is a really big lift and people need to let their legislators know that the deregulation of public schools should be at the top of everyone’s list,” Woltanski said.

Public schools could still give tests, but without those rules, they would not have to insist third graders repeat the grade or high school students lose electives to take remedial reading and math classes to help them pass the exams, she said. Instead, educators and parents could make those decisions based on what’s best for individual students.

“There has not been a real conversation in a decade,” she added, “and I hope everyone will get involved in this conversation because it’s much, much needed.”

Cindy Hamilton, with the Florida Opt Out Network, a group opposed to high-stakes standardized tests, said it was too soon to celebrate.

“After decades of punitive consequences attached to testing, and the value placed on this type of accountability, we will remain skeptical,” she wrote in an email. “For years Florida students have been promised changes that have not come to fruition.”

A representative from Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, which continues to push for the accountability measures he backed when in office, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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