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Florida Officials Will Fight Feds Over Testing of English-Language Learners

Florida Gov. Rick Scott joined state education Commissioner Pam Stewart and Miami-Dade County schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho today in calling for the U.S. Department of Education to back down from its decision that the state must include test results for its newest English-language learners in its accountability system.

In a joint news conference in Miami Wednesday afternoon, the trio of Florida officials said they would formally request that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan rescind his department's denial of a key part of Florida's application to extend its waiver from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act so that English-learners who have fewer than two years in U.S. schools would not have their test scores factored into school grades. Under federal law, English-learners who've been in U.S. schools for one year are to be tested in reading and math and have their results factored into state accountability systems.

While federal education officials did approve the state's overall waiver extension, they refused to greenlight its proposed testing timelines for students who are still learning English. Florida has traditionally allowed ELLs two years of instruction before including their test results in school grades, a practice that it codified in a new state law.

"This is yet another overreach by federal education officials into the practices of Florida education leaders who best understand the needs of our students," Gov. Scott, a Republican, said in a press release.

So now that Florida has taken its stand, what will federal education officials do?  They've certainly been more than willing to be flexible on other waiver issues, such as the timelines for implementing teacher evaluations.

Will they be open to hearing Florida make more of a case for being flexible on the ELL testing timeline?

Policymakers and educators in Florida seem to be in broad agreement that waiting two years before counting ELLs' test scores is the fairest and best practice for students. When Florida first applied for its NCLB waiver, in 2012, state education officials appointed a task force—that included Carvalho—to make recommendations on how best to incorporate the performance of English-learners into the school grading system.

Most of the group's recommendations were shelved, including a top priority for Carvalho and other district leaders that would have factored in ELLs' progress toward becoming proficient in English as a major component of grading schools. That was turned down by then-state commissioner Gerard Robinson even though federal officials had expressed support for it. 

The other backdrop to this standoff between the feds and Florida, is, no surprise, politics. Gov. Scott is running for reelection against former Gov. Charlie Crist and is no doubt looking for a variety of ways to shore up support from Latino voters, who certainly have a large interest in how English-learners are treated in schools.  Having the Miami superintendent at his side probably doesn't hurt in that endeavor.

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