The state senator sponsoring a new education bill in Florida is very adamant about one thing: “This is not a retreat on accountability.” Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) repeated it three different times during a press conference Wednesday afternoon in Tallahassee, suggesting that after everyone hears what he wants to change, some might be under the impression that the goal is to weaken the state’s accountability system that started in earnest under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The stated goals are to remove the high-stakes nature of testing in Florida and respond to over-testing concerns. People upset with too much testing come from all over the political spectrum, but the push to detach student tests from teacher evaluations, school grades, and staffing decisions has primarily been an issue of Florida’s teachers union, and aligned groups like the Florida Association of School Superintendents, where Sen. Montford serves as CEO.

To reach those goals, the bill (SB 964) would change a number of things in Florida’s education law, but most notably, it would reduce “duplicative” state-required exams and repeal the research-based testing system that shows how much teachers help their students grow without offering any type of replacement.

If it passes, it could become radically more difficult for Floridians to know how well schools are meeting their students’ needs.

Cutting out “redundant” tests

Under the proposed law, schools would no longer have to give tests at the end of the school year for U.S. History, Algebra II, Geometry, and Civics.

“But before you panic,” says Sen. Montford, “let me hasten to tell you that this is not an abandonment of these courses. These subjects will still receive the importance that they deserve. They will continue to be taught with vigor and they will be tested by our capable teachers.”

Algebra I and Biology I tests would stay put, but state’s standardized test for all 9th graders would disappear. Also, districts could allow national tests like the ACT and SAT college entrance exams to replace a state test.

Sen. Montford says his staff reached out to school superintendents, school boards, other legislators, parents and teachers to make those decisions, but there’s no clear accounting of why they chose to nix Algebra II instead of Algebra I, for example, or what was duplicative about the U.S. History test. (Calls to his office were not immediately returned)

Replacing the test that measures growth

If you ask him, Sen. Montford will tell you that the remaining tests would still factor into school grades and principals would still be able to consider test scores when making teacher employment decisions. But accountability hawks will tell you it’s the quality of the tests that matters.

Test scores would still show up in the usual places, but there would be less substance to them. And that’s by design: The bill strikes the language requiring a rigorous testing system for measuring student growth and puts nothing in its place.

“The VAM system is the number one concern our superintendents have,” Sen. Montford says, speaking simultaneously from his role as senator and his role as the CEO of the Florida Association of School Superintendents. “Have you ever seen the formula?” he asks me.

“VAM” is the nickname for a formula designed to separate the teacher’s impact on a student from the student’s non-school circumstances like family income level, home life, etc. It’s also an acronym. It stands for Value-Added Model because it susses out how much value a teacher added to the students in his or her class over a year. VAM is not a perfect way to measure students and teachers. It’s complex. And according to statistical experts, it requires a high degree of expertise to do it right. There’s also a concern about transparency, since teachers have a hard time trusting their jobs to a formula that neither they nor the average person can understand.  Still, research shows the approach does have merit if done right. Studies also support using VAM or other statistically sound models that capture student performance if, and only if, other measurements—things like principal observations, and peer reviews or student surveys—make up significant chunks of the teacher’s overall evaluation.

As an alternative to VAM, Sen. Montford suggests going back to the familiar pre-test/post-test system. But there’s nothing in the bill that actually calls for that. After striking all the language for the current test that measures student growth, all that’s left is vague language that says a third of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on “data and indicators of student performance.” With no specifics in the law, that could be interpreted in any number of ways. And there’s no guarantee that those “indicators” would be consistent from district to district, or from school to school, making it impossible to accurately compare school grades, and hampering principals’ ability to make objective decisions about whether a teacher is helping students learn.

Students would still be sitting for tests, but the information Floridians get back would be muddier, harder to interpret, and ultimately less meaningful.

The bill would likely achieve its stated goals of reducing the anxiety associated with tests for teachers and students, but it would also risk creating an unclear and unreliable picture of how well schools are delivering on the promise of a high-quality education for all of Florida’s students. It would also make it harder for education leaders at every level in the state to intervene and help schools that need it most, because you can’t fix what you can’t see.

In other words, you might be forgiven if you saw this as a potential retreat on educational accountability in Florida.

Lane Wright is an editor at Education Post, a nonprofit fostering better conversation for better education.

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