Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle raised sharp questions Thursday about a study that Florida Department of Education officials say validated the state's controversial new standardized test for public-school students.
Members of the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee reviewed the study of the Florida Standards Assessment, as the new test is called, and suggested that the department had portrayed the report's conclusions in an overly optimistic light and wondered whether teacher evaluations and school grades should be tied to the exam.
The Legislature ordered the study last year after the troubled rollout of the Florida Standards Assessment, which included delays for students who tried to log on to take the test online and a cyberattack that slowed down the system for at least some test-takers.
The study supported the use of the Florida Standards Assessment for school grades and teacher evaluations but said that "the FSA scores for some students will be suspect" because of the computer glitches.
Under questioning during Thursday's committee hearing, an employee of one of the companies involved in drafting the report seemed to indicate that reasonable people could disagree with the study's conclusions.
"I think there is room for professional disagreement here," said Andrew Wiley, director of education services for Alpine Testing Solutions. "I think there is data, and there's data in the report, that could be looked at and pointed to that says, maybe the use of these test scores would not be appropriate. And, quite frankly, there was rigorous debate within our group --- some people feeling differently and things like that."
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart tried to downplay Wiley's statement.
"I do think that what he was referencing was in general, philosophically, how people feel about using a test," Stewart said.
But it was clear that senators had concerns about even using the test for teacher evaluations and school grades. Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who chairs a Senate education budget panel, read critical excerpts of the report and pressed Wiley on whether the results of the exam should be used.
"Would you bet your career on an evaluation that was based on an assessment such as this if you were a teacher?" Gaetz asked.
"I continue to think that using these test scores at that level would be appropriate," Wiley responded.
Lawmakers also quizzed Wiley on when the Florida Department of Education received the report. The consultant said that the agency saw two early drafts of the study, but said that the department only suggested changes to a table and did not have input on the final conclusions.
Stewart said the department didn't see the final draft of the report until the day before it was released to the public and reiterated Wiley's comments about the agency's input when talking to reporters after the meeting.
"You heard him say what kind of input we had, and I suggest you ask him about that," she responded when questioned about it.
"We did not do any sort of work with them to suggest that they needed to change a conclusion or a finding," she said later, after a follow-up question.
But the future for any changes to the Florida Standards Assessment seems murky at best. Many lawmakers appear ready to move on after a tedious debate over testing legislation in the 2015 legislative session, and the head of the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee suggested Thursday's hearing would be the last.
"My intent is, after today we have other legislation that we're going to be reviewing in our committee," said Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz. "So my time will be limited."
He suggested Gaetz's budget committee might address testing issues. And Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said the debate about the issue isn't over.
"This meeting today gave me no more comfort. In fact, it even raised more questions about the process that was used, the conclusions that they came to. I am not satisfied," he said. " ... I don't think this is just going to go off into the sunset."