Sen. Gaetz: “If DOE doesn’t do something about it, we will.”
Many students, teachers and parents in Jackson County, as well as from around the state, are at their breaking points over the increased frequencies in student testing required of late by the Florida Department of Education, including the “statewide, standardized assessments.” Reportedly due to the testing, there are students who once enjoyed school who now hate it, teachers are considering leaving the profession and parents don’t know what to do; all are frustrated and there are real concerns about problematic mental stress. The two members of Jackson County’s Legislative Delegation, former Sen. President Don Gaetz and newly-elected House Rep. Brad Drake, listened carefully and politely to several teachers and parents at a town hall meeting Thursday night in Marianna, but both explained to them that there was little relief they could provide any time soon, the matter being the existent policy of DOE. Gaetz may not have been aware that it already had been tried when he suggested that they might get some relief from the local school board.
However, after the meeting, both Gaetz and Drake, responding to questions asked by the TIMES, indicated they were in favor reducing the number of tests per student and in favor of reforming the system. “I believe the state is looking at eliminating testing that is unnecessary,” Drake said. “I think you will see some progress this year.” Sen. Gaetz went further: “I hear the concerns,” he explained, “but there is nothing currently before the Legislature to change DOE policy. It’s in the Department of Education’s hands, but if they won’t do something about it, we will.” Gaetz just may hold the power to get reform started, if he hasn’t already. A former twice-elected superintendent of schools for Okaloosa County, Gaetz is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education; Sen. Bill Montford, who represented Jackson County before the recent reapportionment, is vice chairman.
Gaetz sent a follow-up letter sent to the TIMES, received the day after the meeting. It shows that the Chairman has seriously put Education Commissioner Pam Steward on the hot seat regarding district-mandated testing, the statewide (formerly FCAT) standardized testing in the spring and “opt-out” threats from parents and teachers throughout the state of Florida. The letter dated Jan. 13 regards Stewart’s recent testimony to the subcommittee that must have raised more questions than answers and tasks the commissioner with providing the answers to many difficult and telling new questions from the subcommittee. Among Chairman Gaetz’s questions to Pam Stewart:
“1) How much total time will students spend during the 2014-15 school year on state-required assessments, including statewide, standardized and state-required local assessments administered by school districts? How much time will students spend on additional district-mandated assessments administered solely at the discretion of the school districts, and what is the purpose of these district-mandated assessments?
“2) How much total funding will be expended (state and local dollars) on state-required assessments, including statewide, standardized assessments; state-required local assessments and additional district-mandated assessments?
“3) What costs does the department incur from the administration of statewide, standardized assessments...In total, how much has the department contracted to pay selected vendors for these assessments and what revenue sources are used for those contracts? How much has the department expended to date…?”
“4) Please describe what the department has done or is doing to assure the Legislature, educators and parents of the reliability, validity and quality of state-required local assessments administered by school districts. You testified that there is no assurance of quality control in local assessments. How then, can those assessments be relied upon as valid in light of the consequences of those assessments for student promotion and teacher evaluation and compensation?”
“5) What pupil progression or other consequences, if any, will apply to students if they or their parents ‘opt out’ of statewide, standardized assessments or state-required local assessments: For example, could choosing not to participate in required assessments impact a student’s promotion to the next grade level, affect the student’s ability to earn course credit or graduate with a standard diploma?
“6) What funding, school or district grade, if any, will apply to schools or districts if they encourage, allow or fail to report ‘opt out’ practices or instances?
Gaetz, Montford and Sen. John Legg end the letter to Pam Stewart by saying, “We again ask you to please identify any statutory or regulatory authorities or flexibilities that you need from the Governor or the Legislature that would allow you to explore or implement other valid options leading to fewer, more reliable, more useful assessments.”
After Thursday night’s Legislative Delegation town hall meeting at the Jackson County School Board meeting room, Gaetz may have some more intense questions for Stewart at her next subcommittee hearing. He paid special attention to the stirring testimony of Edna Reed, a 14-year teacher at Sneads Elementary School because Gaetz, as he pointed out to her, was at SES last September to recognize the school’s seven straight years of receiving grade “A.”
“Many of our students are going home frustrated and crying,” she said. “The overall testing is requiring us to teach at a pace that exceeds their cognitive abilities and is beyond what is appropriate. It’s too fast a pace. Listen to us (teachers) who are down in the trenches; there are kids that cannot hang on. The sacrifices (students and teachers) make sometimes makes us feel like we can’t do this anymore.”
Reed suggested that the state suspend the grading of schools this year, due to the changeover from FCAT to “Florida Standardized Testing” which is believed to be more difficult. “The A, B and C system is not fair,” she said. “I propose that students be given math and science exams at the beginning of the year and that they take the same test at the end of the year. This would show their progress in a way that is reliable and understandable.”
Reed was preceded by Dave Galloway, a fifth grade science teacher who heads the local teachers’ union. “The testing is sucking the life out of the classroom,” he said. “Some students hate school now because of it. We need to inject some common sense into our system.” A round of applause from the crowd of about 75 was given to Cottondale kindergarten teacher Carol Johnson who criticized the “FAIR” tests. “We’re testing too much, teaching too little,” she said. “The people who make these decisions should be made to come into the classroom!”
Parent Donna Chandler drew applause when she explained: “It’s an assembly line we are putting our children on,” she said. “None of this testing makes any sense. We need to quit testing and let the teachers teach!” She received more applause when she added that “Common Core” programs “need to end.”
On the subject of Common Core, the national government-sponsored teaching curricula offered to the states, Gaetz said he was not opposed to it. He rebuffed Jackson County Concerned Patriots member Elaine Thompson when the Tea Party activist tried to explain what she considered to be the dangers of Common Core. “I’m not in favor of Washington (D.C.) standards,” he said, “but I am in favor of national standards. At this time, I’m not in favor of eliminating Common Core.” Florida now uses “Florida Standards” but critics say they are much the same as Common Core.
Some of the most moving testimony came from the last and 14th person to speak at the 90-minute session on Jan. 22. Caritha Land of Bascom is the parent of an 8-year-old. “(The pressure from increased testing) is putting the weight of the world on her shoulders—and she is 8 years old. She says, ‘Mama, I don’t want to go to school anymore.’ She is having some problems and I’ve been told that maybe medication could help. I don’t want to put my daughter on anti-depressants so she can pass tests.” Land received some verbal confirmation from the crowd when she concluded, “I’m afraid I believe the bottom line on all this is money.”
The 2015 Florida Legislature meets in session beginning on March 3 and lasting until May 1. Sen. Gaetz’ Florida Senate District 1 Destin office number is 850-897-5747; the Tallahassee number is 850-487-5001. The De Funiak Springs number for Florida House District 5 Rep. Drake is 850-892-8431. Gaetz, who resigned as Okaloosa superintendent of schools to run for the Senate in 2006, is term limited. His son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, is running in the 2016 election to replace his father. DOE Commissioner Pam Stewart’s Tallahassee number is 850-245-0505.
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