FCAT Critics See Opening in Robinson Resignation

By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida Email
By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida Email

Tallahassee, FL -- August 5, 2012

With Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson resigning in the wake of a series of public-relations miscues and grading mistakes surrounding Florida's high-stakes testing and accountability regime, critics are sensing an opening to change the direction of the school-reform movement in Florida.

Lawmakers and parent organizations who want the state to focus less on FCAT results in evaluating schools are trying to use the search for a replacement for Robinson -- who resigned this week to spend more time with his family -- as a reason to re-evaluate the system he oversaw.

"It's a chance to throw out the old status quo of high-stakes testing and look at what might be best for kids and make some changes," said Kathleen Oropeza, one of the founders of Fund Education Now, an advocacy group.

Rep. Perry Thurston, a Plantation Democrat set to lead his party in the next legislative session, was more blunt.

"The FCAT has failed students, teachers, and our state," he said in a statement responding to Robinson's resignation. "A new state education commissioner can help Florida install a better and broader education accountability system for every school receiving taxpayer dollars that takes into account all the things students and teachers accomplish throughout the year."

Robinson's tenure was marked by a major collapse in FCAT writing scores, blamed on increased standards, and a revision to school grades that changed the marks for more than 200 schools after the grades were released.

The PTA has pressed members to send emails to Gov. Rick Scott encouraging him and state Board of Education members to appoint "a Commissioner of Education who values a well-rounded, high quality public education and reduces the emphasis on high-stakes testing." The emails have poured into Scott's inbox.

Another form email of unclear origin that has shown up several times in Scott's inbox – which can be publicly viewed on the governor's Sunburst email system - hits many of the same notes.

"Commissioner Robinson's resignation will not quiet the discontent of Floridians for current politically-driven reform efforts," the letter begins.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who also serves as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, is not as critical of the FCAT as some other Democrats but still said the state should re-evaluate the test regardless of Robinson's decision.

"Let's have a serious discussion about, is this the best approach?" he said.

Even Scott recently questioned in off-the-cuff remarks whether Florida might "test too much," though he hasn't elaborated on that thought since, and hasn't made any suggestion that he is likely to push for a major change in that area.

But Republicans seem unlikely to budge from the reform effort that has formed the backbone of their education agenda since former Gov. Jeb Bush pushed accountability during his tenure. And Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future remains influential in school debates in the Legislature.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of the foundation, praised Robinson and the state's high-stakes testing model in a statement following the commissioner's resignation.

"He kept Florida an education-reform model for the nation," Levesque said. "Under his leadership, Florida pushed forward with important improvements to its standards and accountability system to better prepare students for success."

An overhaul of the state's testing system is already on the way as Florida and other states move toward a more standardized curriculum. But the idea of testing as a major barometer for schools is still endorsed by Republicans, and at least one key lawmaker says the state shouldn't dump the FCAT in the meantime.

"This is an opportunity to take a breath and renew our commitment to the FCAT done right," said Sen. David Simmons, a Maitland Republican who chairs the panel that oversees school funding.

While he didn't question the reasons for Robinson's resignation, Simmons said the change "gives us an opportunity to put those mistakes behind us and move on."

As for what the state should look for in its next commissioner, Simmons suggested the state make sure that the person is able to fill the dual roles of running the Department of Education and advising state leaders on policy.

"Obviously, we need somebody with both management skills and vision," he said.

And Montford said it should be someone familiar with the landscape in Florida.

"We're moving so fast ... we can't afford the luxury of someone coming in and learning on the job," he said.

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