Florida lawmakers may postpone tougher high school graduation rules for class of 2023

Thousands of Florida 12th graders who might not otherwise graduate will be able to walk at commencement ceremonies next month, if legislation unanimously approved by the Florida House this week becomes law. The bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

The bill would postpone, again, requirements for higher test scores that some high school seniors need to earn a diploma, an acknowledgement that COVID-19 disrupted the education of the class of 2023, whose members were in ninth grade when the pandemic hit.

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“Looking at the gravity of the situation, and the amount of seniors who would not be able to graduate this year, we have made allowances,” said Rep. Ralph Massulo, R-Lecanto, who sponsored an amendment to a multi-pronged education bill (HB 1537) that would make it easier for some students to graduate this year.

That would thrill Panhandle parent Christina Boone, whose daughter’s graduation and college plans hang on whether she can earn a passing score in the next several weeks. The teenager, a senior at J.R. Arnold High School, has the grades and credits to graduate but is missing a needed language arts exam score.

“It’s stressful on her. It’s stressful on me,” said the Panama City Beach mother. “It’s not fair to these kids.”

Educators across the state have been pleading for the state not to impose higher scores this year, worried about students’ futures and district and state graduation rates.

“These changes have created an undue burden on our educators who are already facing significant challenges in delivering quality education,” Broward Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley wrote in an April 20 letter to lawmakers.

“They are being forced to devote more time and resources to help students meet the increased standards, rather than focus on other critical aspects of their education and post-secondary opportunities,” Smiley wrote.

About 3,800 Broward seniors are missing scores on at least one needed test, but otherwise have met the requirements for graduation. In Palm Beach County, it’s about 2,800.

“Without your intervention, this increased expectation will result in a potential 11% drop in our District’s graduation rate,” Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke wrote in a letter to legislators. “The impacted students unable to satisfy the requisite test scores may choose to pursue GED options or join the workforce at an extreme competitive disadvantage.”

Across the state, school districts, large and small, have reported hundreds or thousands of seniors who are set to graduate in May but for a missing test score, from about 200 in Bay County in the Panhandle to nearly 860 in Osceola County to about 4,000 in Miami-Dade County.

“This step by the Florida House will open the door for thousands of students impacted by the pandemic to walk across the stage and receive their high school diploma,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Jose Dotres said. “We look forward to the final passage of this good legislation that will ultimately benefit children.”

Florida seniors must pass state tests in algebra and language arts to graduate, and thousands of teenagers do so easily well before they start senior year.

But for years, a sizeable group also has struggled on the state tests. They have been able to substitute “concordant,” or equivalent, scores on the ACT or the SAT, the national college admissions exams, or the PERT, used for placement in community college courses.

Historically, about a third of the state’s 12th graders have used those concordant scores from other exams to meet graduation requirements.

The needed concordant scores, however, were to be raised this year, and many students have been unable to clear that bar. The higher scores initially were to be in place last year, but the State Board of Education waived them for the class of 2022, citing the impact of the pandemic.

Educators said this year’s seniors deserve the same consideration. The Seminole school district in October even put that request in its 2023 list of legislative priorities it hoped the Legislature would adopt when it convened in March.

The bill the House passed this week would leave the ACT or SAT concordant scores where they’ve been, meaning the class of 2023 would need the same scores as students in the recent past. That means students could meet the language arts requirement with SAT reading scores of 430 or ACT reading scores of 19 and could meet the algebra 1 requirement with 420 on SAT math or a 16 on ACT math.

They could still use PERT — but the needed score would be 114, not the 97 it has been in prior years, a change that worries Seminole educators even as they are otherwise pleased with the legislative action.

Starting with the class of 2024, however, the requirements would revert to the higher scores approved in 2018 and initially meant to kick in last year. Those requirements include an SAT reading score of 480 and the elimination of PERT as a replacement for the algebra exam.

“This is a temporary fix,” Massulo said as the House readied to approve the bill. “We want to see better performance in the future.”

The state wanted to raise the concordant scores to better match the challenge of achieving those to that of passing the state tests.

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The bill was approved unanimously, with other lawmakers saying Massulo’s measure was the right move this year for 12th graders.

“This is a problem throughout the state,” said Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton. “This is the thing that they need to get over the finish line.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she received many calls and text messages from worried educators on the issue. “Thank you for heeding those concerns,” she said, adding the change will help teenagers “graduate and continue to contribute to our economy.”

For Boone’s daughter and others in the Panhandle, the pandemic came on the heels of Hurricane Michael, and both contributed to educational disruptions, she said. “The whole class of 2023 lost a lot of education time because of that.”

Her daughter easily passed the state algebra exam but has struggled with language arts. She has taken six standardized tests in recent months in attempt to get the needed score, and her latest SAT score would qualify her for a diploma, if bill the House passed becomes law.

“I was so happy when I heard about it,” Boone said.

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