By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001
President Bush's plan to require testing for millions of public schoolchildren survived a challenge in the House on Tuesday, but only after Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa warned against expanding Florida-style testing across the nation.
"Standardized testing in Florida is a growing disgrace," said Davis, who was joined by Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, speaking against the national testing requirement. "If we allow this to continue and spread to other states, it will be a national disgrace and we will all be responsible."
Davis, a Democrat, even mentioned the recent news out of Hernando County, where middle school students last week and again Tuesday were rewarded with money for high scores on the state's FCAT.
"Last week, Florida reached a new and inevitable low in testing run amok," Davis said. "Two Hernando County middle schools bribed their students by offering up to $150 for a high standardized test score."
The House vote Tuesday preserved a key part of Bush's education package, which would require each state to test students in reading and math in grades three through eight. House members voted 255-173 against an amendment that would have stripped the testing requirement from the bill.
"This amendment guts the heart and soul from the president's bill," said Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Indiana. He said he understood that Bush would veto the bill if it did not include the testing requirement.
In an interview with education reporters this month, Bush made it clear he would be willing to compromise on several parts of his plan -- such as vouchers to private schools -- but not on the testing component, which he sees as essential to school accountability.
"To me, that's the cornerstone of reform," Bush said. "If you don't measure (student achievement), you don't know what to correct."
The bill still faces debate in the Senate. Davis and other opponents of the testing requirement said the vote in the House sends a message and should encourage more debate in the Senate.
"To have 173 people voting to take out something that is so important to the president, that is a strong message," Davis said. "The White House worked it very heavily."
The voting Tuesday in the House did not follow party lines. Democrats opposed the testing plan out of a belief that test scores would be used as a hammer against school districts. But 52 Republicans voted against the testing requirement, some out of a belief that the federal government should not tell local schools what to do.
Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., said that flexibility was the cornerstone of Bush's plan when it was introduced. But, Schaffer said, flexibility has been lost and "this plan has been left behind" -- a reference to Bush's pledge to "leave no child behind."
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., also supported the amendment to eliminate the testing mandate.
"There is a question about whether we're ready to do this testing," said Frank, referring to media reports of mistakes by testing companies.
Bush's plan would require states to choose or devise a standardized test to give each year to students in grades three through eight. Based on those test scores, struggling schools would be identified and would receive additional federal money to raise achievement. If a school fails to improve over time, federal sanctions would follow, though it's not clear exactly what those sanctions would be.
The plan is in many ways similar to Florida's A+
Accountability plan, championed by the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush. Florida already tests children in grades three through 10, so it would be easy for Florida to obey new federal requirements if the bill passed.
Davis, who has been mentioned as a possible challenger to Jeb Bush for the 2002 governor's race, said it was the similarities between the federal plan and the Florida plan that compelled him to speak out Tuesday.
"Florida is so far ahead with this, the best I could do is tell the story of what's going on in Florida," said Davis, who has held hearings on testing in Florida and heard complaints about the effects the state's test has had on instruction. "What's happening in Florida is a lesson for the country."
Scores foretell diploma trouble (May 20, 2001)
Bush frowns on FCAT payouts (May 17, 2001)
Districts grapple with teacher-performance pay plans (May 16, 2001)
True test for FCAT (May 13, 2001)
Florida students compare nationally (May 10, 2001)
Scores rise in two of the three R's (May 9, 2001)
A tedious method to scoring writing (May 2, 2001)