Florida Senate says yes to more recess, fewer tests

Posted at 7:21 AM, May 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-05 11:23:53-04

After years of complaints from parents and teachers, Florida lawmakers appear ready to approve a sweeping education bill that would mandate recess in elementary schools, while also taking gradual steps to reduce the amount of standardized tests required in public schools.

The Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill that would require elementary schools to set aside 20 minutes each day for “free play recess.” The legislation also eliminates end-of-course exams in Algebra 2 and civics. Starting in 2019, it would push Florida’s main standardized test back until later in the school year. Currently the tests are administered from late February to early May.

The bill resulted from negotiations between the Senate and House and is on track to pass the Legislature before the session’s end. Democratic and Republican senators had been united in their push for the recess provision, but top House Republicans had been opposed over the last few weeks.

When asked whether he would accept the compromise bill, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said “recess is alive and well.”

For two years, a group of mothers came to Tallahassee and pleaded with legislators for the recess provision. They said children need recess to expend energy and give them a break from schoolwork.

The legislation also attempts to respond to ongoing complaints to Florida’s testing system.

Florida has had standardized testing for decades, but such testing greatly expanded under former Gov. Jeb Bush. He used the tests as a key measure for his A+ plan that tied student performance to a school grading system. After Bush left office, legislators tinkered further and added end-of-course exams that were designed to replicate a system used in New York high schools.

Initially it was the state’s teacher unions and Democratic legislators who complained about the testing system. That changed, however, in recent years after Florida developed a new test called the Florida Standards Assessment based primarily on a standards tied to Common Core, which came under strong criticism from conservative groups.

“We had a proliferation of tests over the years to the point where teachers couldn’t teach and students began to dread to come to school,” said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and former school superintendent. “There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of ice cream, but some of us don’t want to stop.”

Montford said the bill didn’t go as far as he and others wanted, but they still voted for it.

The legislation, for example, allows school districts to use paper and pencil tests in elementary grades, but that provision was delayed until 2019 and will depend on additional money from the Legislature next year.

Some legislators also wanted to let high school students take college entrance exams such as the SAT in lieu of the 10th grade version of the Florida Standards Assessment. The bill instead calls for the Department of Education to study the idea.

“This is the way at least we can take the first step,” Montford said.