- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Responding to the ongoing backlash about Florida’s standardized testing, the Florida Senate on Thursday passed a sweeping bill that would place limits on the use of tests in the state’s public schools.

The vote followed two days of debate during which some leading Republican senators said that the state had gone too far with a series of changes that were first initiated by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“We’ve made some mistakes and we were bold,” said Sen. Alan Hays, a Republican from central Florida. “I feel like now our obligation is to honestly admit our mistakes, apologize for them and correct them.”

The Senate measure would cap the time students spend on state-authorized standardized tests to no more than 45 hours a year. It also permanently eliminates an 11th grade standardized test that Gov. Rick Scott previously suspended for this year.

Senate President Andy Gardiner said the legislation would result in “fewer, better tests.”

Florida last year signed a six year, $220 million contract with a company to draw up a new standardized test that is being used in elementary, middle and high school. The rollout of that new test has been marred by technical glitches and reports of an alleged cyberattack. The test, called the Florida Standards Assessment, is based primarily on Common Core standards.

Some senators said the problems have compromised the validity of the test and the Senate measure calls for the suspension of the state’s A to F grading system until an independent study of the test is completed.

The A to F grading system was a key component of Bush’s A+ plan that has been in place since 1999. Bush has touted his education policies as he prepares for a likely run for president.

A spokesman for the testing company, American Institutes for Research, declined to comment on the independent study requirement.

Legislators entered their 60 day session promising to roll back the level of testing. Their push came just a few months after a southwest Florida school district briefly opted out of state testing.

The Florida House passed its testing bill last month, but Republicans in that chamber rejected amendments offered by Democrats, including one that would have suspended the grading system.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli has said repeatedly that he will not support undoing key parts of Florida’s system of measuring student and school performance. The two chambers have until May 1 to work out differences.

Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican, said he still agrees with Bush’s position that “if you don’t test, you don’t care.” But Simmons added that “we cannot blind ourselves to the problems facing us.”

The final Senate vote was 32-4. A handful of senators said the legislation still did not go far enough. Sen Dwight Bullard, a Miami-Dade Democrat and teacher, tried to make several changes, including giving students the option of taking the test on paper instead of online.

One change that seems assured: Both the House and Senate have voted in favor of letting school districts move up their school starting dates to Aug. 10. Some legislators complained that this would cut short summers for students and parents, but supporters say the move will give school districts more flexibility.

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Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fineout

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