Lawmakers question value of high-stakes testing *
Florida's system of high-stakes testing, long the subject of criticism from parents and teachers, is now receiving extra scrutiny from state lawmakers. Some members of a House committee on school quality questioned Wednesday whether the downsides to frequent testing and school grades outweigh the benefits, particularly after a state education official told legislators that Florida does more testing that is required by federal law. Required testing includes the Florida Standards Assessment and a variety of end-of-course exams. "Is there some benefit?" asked Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages. "One of the most common criticisms we receive from teachers and parents is the stress and time taken away from the other academic efforts of the school." School grades, which are based mostly on how students perform on standardized tests, were also criticized. These affect home prices and whether industries choose to locate here, experts say. The tests are also used to determine how much teachers are paid, whether third-graders can be promoted and whether high school students can graduate. The grading system has gone through numerous changes over the years that some have attributed to the same schools getting an A or B one year and a D or F another. "With all due respect, we've lost faith in our grading system for our schools," said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. Juan Copa, deputy commissioner for the State Department of Education, said that while the accountability system has gotten more rigorous over the years, this will be the third year of the same tests. "I think the focus is on keeping that stable, so we can grow from here," he said. It's unclear what, if any, changes lawmakers might make to the school accountability system. But there does seem to be more interest this year than in the past. Last month a Senate committee asked a group of school superintendents to share ideas on how to improve school accountability. The superintendents' ideas included returning to paper-and-pencil assessments in order to free up school computers; eliminating the required end-of-course exams for geometry, Algebra 2, history and civics, allowing schools to return to locally given final exams; and allowing school districts to do their own teacher evaluations, instead of using a state system largely based on test scores. Wednesday, State Rep. Matt Willhite floated an even more dramatic idea. "Could we do without school grading?" he asked. "When we have schools with continuous failing grades, are we benefiting the child by telling them they are in a failing school?"
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With debates over block tuition at state universities and graduating state college students more quickly, a Senate panel Wednesday backed a bill that would expand Bright Futures scholarships, impose stricter graduation standards and increase financial aid for first-generation students. The bill (SB 2) is part of Senate President Joe Negron's higher-education initiative. It cleared the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee in a 5-1 vote, with opposition from Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. Clemens unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill, including with a proposal to let the 12 state universities review the financial impact of block tuition before mandating its use in the fall of 2018. A move to block tuition would require undergraduates to pay a flat tuition rate per semester, rather than be billed on the current credit-hour basis. The bill would require block tuition but leave it up to the universities to develop the specific plans. Clemens said he was concerned that if the proposal results in universities only charging for what now represents 12 credit hours per semester but students take 15 or more credit hours, it would lead to a substantial revenue loss for the schools. He said he has been told it could be $30 million or more for some universities. "That's a big concern. That's not a small hit," Clemens said. "There is a real impact to the revenue loss here that we are not taking into account." His amendment was defeated in a voice vote after drawing opposition from Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who chairs the subcommittee and is sponsoring the bill. Galvano said the Senate was waiting to see block tuition plans from the universities, which have had the block-tuition option for a number of years but have failed to advance a plan. He also said if a plan reduced tuition, which would be a savings for students, the financial loss for the schools could be offset by other funding. Other provisions in the bill would hold universities to a new performance standard based on a four-year graduation rate, rather than the six-year measure now used. The Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday also passed a bill (SB 4) that would create funding pools to help universities attract top-quality faculty and recognize high-achieving graduate and professional programs, including law and medical schools.
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House rule could lead to lawsuit, government shutdown
Warning of a state government shutdown, the Florida Senate could sue over a House rule that’s supposed to make the budget process more transparent by giving the public advanced notice on hometown spending projects. But the rule goes too far in the eyes of Florida Senate budget chief Jack Latvala, who said it unconstitutionally binds the hands of the chamber and threatens to stall lawmakers from passing an $83.4 billion budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 -- a surprising move that would inject a new level of dysfunction and discord in the Republican-controlled state Capitol. “The alternatives are not good: gridlock, government shutdown and so forth. The bottom line is the Florida Senate will not be unilaterally bound by House rule,” said Latvala, who plans to present an alternative joint rule Thursday at a Senate Rules Committee meeting. Latvala, who first spoke to the Naples Daily News about his plans, wouldn’t comment on whether the Senate would sue and added that “we’re not threatening anything.” But, he said, the committee will discuss the legality of the House rule that required hometown spending items to be filed by Feb. 7, about a month before the 60-day lawmaking session starts. House Speaker Richard Corcoran pushed for the change in the Florida House because he said that hometown spending items -- once nicknamed “turkeys” in Tallahassee and derided as “pork” in Washington -- are too often added late in the session in the budget without adequate public input.
Corcoran, a conservative Republican who has also clashed with Republican Gov. Rick Scott over spending, claimed a measure of satisfaction from Latvala’s decision to propose a new budget rule. “It's encouraging that the Senate is moving toward greater transparency and openness,” Corcoran said. “But our concerns with regards to member project openness, project accountability, and other central issues still remain. We are always willing to work with our Senate counterparts and hope we can have a constructive dialogue.”
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2017 FEA Summer Academy: The FEA Summer Academy will be held from June 12-16, 2017 at the Sawgrass Marriott in Ponte Vedra. Stay tuned for more details!
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