Putting Education Reform To The Test

Five Takeaways On Florida’s Switch To New Academic Standards

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Pinellas County school superintendent Michael Grego discusses the switch to new state education standards Wednesday night.

Florida schools are in the midst of switching to new, tougher education standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Known as Common Core State Standards, educators say the new requirements will not only ask students what they know but require them to demonstrate how they know it.

Wednesday night, St. Petersburg College hosted a discussion about the switch to Common Core and what it will mean for Florida students.

The panel featured Pam Stewart, the chancellor of public schools at the Florida Department of Education, Pinellas school superintendent Michael Grego, Doug Tuthill, a former teacher who now works with the private school scholarship group Step Up For Students, Mindy Haas, president-elect of the Florida PTA, and Madeira Beach Fundamental School librarian Nancy Millichamp.

Here’s five things that jumped out to us as we listened:

1) Schools have a lot of public relations work to do.

Most public displeasure with Florida’s accountability system centers on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — and the consequences of what test scores mean for students, teachers, schools and districts.

Common Core is intended to ask more of students, to demonstrate what they know and how they know it. But much of that will still be measured by a test.

An audience member posed this question near the end of the 90-minute discussion:

“We have the second generation Sunshine State Standards that are being assessed using the FCAT test…and what we’re moving to is the Common Core standards that’s going to rely on a single test.

“As the current plan stands we’re moving from one set of standards to another set of standards, and one standardized test to another standardized test?”

The panelists said his statement was true, though Florida’s school grading formula will have to be adjusted for the new PARCC test which Florida students will take.

But clearly this is a question to which educators will have to find a good answer: Why is PARCC not FCAT by a different name?

2) Common Core is not so common.

Common Core will allow for better comparisons among state performance, but there are still significant differences in how states will implement the new standards.

First, states are developing two standardized tests for Common Core — PARCC and Smarter Balanced. The tests work differently, and Stewart said there are limits to apples-to-apples comparisons.

“There will be some commonalities and certainly some comparisons can be made with the PARCC states,” Stewart said. “There will still be some things that you won’t be able to do an exact comparison.”

For instance, some states won’t administer the new tests on computers and will opt for paper and pencil. And some states don’t require Algebra to graduate from high school as Florida does, so Algebra exams will test different groups of students.

3) Common Core will transform the way technology is used in the classroom.

It starts with the testing, which will use computers or tablets to assess what students know.

That means students need to be familiar with how to use the computer or tablet before it’s time to take the test.

“If I’m not using that piece of technology in my instruction, you have a serious disconnect when a student then goes and sits in front of the computer to take that assessment,” Stewart said. “So it’s going to have to be infused in everyday instruction.”

Once the technology is in the classroom, Tuthill argued it will unlock a lot of possibilities and flexibility for teachers and schools.

“You can do things with IT now that are just incredible,” Tuthill said. “So all the concerns teachers had about ‘How I’m going to do this?’ can be answered with technology.”

And if kids are using computers to take classes from three or four schools at the same time, he asked, how would a school grading system work? Increased use of technology would make the current school grading system obsolete, he said.

4) Technology needs are tremendous.

Millichamp noted that her school already has problems administering computerized tests.

One test can only be given on even-numbered days, she said. So the school spent several days marching children down to the testing room only to find the system wasn’t working that day.

The Florida Department of Education has asked for $441.8 million, most of it to upgrade school computing networks and infrastructure. But that budget request will compete with Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to pay teachers an additional $2,500 next year — and all the other state agencies asking for money.

Florida schools are scheduled to start giving the PARCC exam in the school year beginning fall 2014.

5) Change is happening quickly.

State lawmakers and education officials tried to soften the change to Common Core.

It’s why the state updated its standards, designed the computerized FCAT 2.0 and began increasing the scores required to pass state exams.

Stewart said the amount and pace of the changes has been quick.

“In my years of public education there’s not been as much change as in the last year and a half,” she said. “No question about that.

“But it’s also the most exciting change that I can think of happening.”

You’ll be able to hear more about the switch to Common Core on WUSF’s Florida Matters, which airs at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Or listen at WUSF.org.


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