Conversation About Florida Standards Changing As Legislative Session Begins
Sondra Hulette and her granddaughter joined dozens of anti-Common Core protestors as they circled a fountain outside the Orange County school district offices last month.
Inside the building, the State Board of Education was about to rename Common Core as "The Florida Standards." But outside, Hulette and others chanted "Stop Common Core!" "Keep education local!" and "Follow the money!"
Common Core are math and language arts standards adopted by Florida and 44 other states. They outline what students should know at the end of each grade.
But Hulette and many others oppose the standards because they are concerned about losing local control over classroom decisions, cost and other factors.
Hulette's granddaughter is homeschooled, but she worries college placement exams are being written to the standards. And that would force parents of homeschooled students to address the standards or possibly leave their kids unprepared for the exams.
"I don't want what's happening in the public school to infiltrate what I have the authority over as homeschoolers," Hulette said. "It's going to impose some things on her that are illogical."
Opposition to the standards has dominated Florida's education conversation the past year, but Christina Phillips' sixth grade language arts students at Monroe Middle School in Tampa wouldn't know that from their school work. Phillips' lessons have been Common Core-based for the past two years.
A recent lesson pounded the idea that students need to identify facts in what they read, and then use those facts to support their theories and opinions when writing.
“Remember: Claim evidence and commentary are in love," she told her students, using a goofy analogy to help her kids remember the distinctions. "They are married. They cannot be away from each other. They cannot be separated. And remember claim evidence and commentary, the mommy and the daddy, support baby claim."
Lawmakers said the questions about Florida's Common Core standards are changing as they start the legislative session in Tallahassee this week.
Many said the debate about what's in the standards has been settled by minor changes adopted by the State Board of Education and state leaders rejecting Florida's use of federally-funded tests designed by multi-state consortia. Now, lawmakers are focused on what they can do to help make the standards work when every Florida classroom uses them this fall.
However, superintendents, parents groups and others are asking more time to prepare for the standards before schools and teacher performance is rated on the results or new, more difficult Common Core tests.
Senate Education chairman John Legg said lawmakers are waiting on a March decision from Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. She’ll announce which test will replace the FCAT.
"I do think the conversation is now moving past the standards of ‘How do we assess it?" Legg said. "'What do those assessments mean to individual teachers? And what does that mean to school in terms of accountability as a whole?’”
The Port Richey Republican and others say they are facing a series of questions related to the standards as lawmakers return to Tallahassee.
Are schools ready for the new online tests?
Do schools have the money to properly train staff for the new standards?
What are the best ways to keep student data safe?
And will school districts be ready to use the standards in every grade when classes start this fall?
Around the country, states are deciding the answer to the last question is no. Louisiana and New York have extended the transition period for Common Core. Other states are considering similar extensions and delaying the use of new test results for school grades, teacher evaluations and other measure.
School leaders and parent groups want to have the same conversation in Florida.
Florida PTA president Eileen Segal wants teachers to have a chance to learn the standards before their performance – and their school’s performance – are judged based on new Common Core tests.
"Florida PTA is in agreement with the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and school board members," Segal said, and "requests a pause before fully implementing Florida’s new assessment tests on the standards in all K-12 grade levels until there is complete confidence in teacher and student preparation."
Florida is one of 35 states which rates teachers based in part on their students’ test performance.
The new Common Core tests are expected to be more difficult, which means fewer students will likely pass. About half as many New York and Kentucky students met state goals when those states switched to Common Core exams.
Similar results are expected in Florida.
That could mean more schools earning failing state grades, fewer teachers earning bonuses and parents not understanding why their kid no longer can pass the state exam.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said she doesn’t support pausing school grades or teachers evaluations.
“I am concerned about the adults in the system," Stewart said at a State Board of Education meeting earlier this year, "but my number one, primary concern is for the students in Florida...and I don’t think that suspending school grading is the right thing to do for students.
She’s recommended trimming down the state grading system and waiving penalties the first year of Common Core
Legislative Democrats are asking what’s the hurry? Legg said lawmakers will decide during the session if they want to step in.
And Common Core critics said they aren’t giving up – they want lawmakers to repeal the standards. A bill has been filed to put Common Core on hold – but lawmakers don’t expect it to go anywhere.
Another bill would limit access to student data Florida collects.