Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson is touring the state and talking with parents and local school officials about the results of this year’s FCAT test and end-course exams. Robinson has been trying to communicate the relationship between the current tests and future learning requirements that will be soon coming online.
“We have to work out a way on the K-12 and the high school-side of the fence, in particular, to make sure we’re providing the students with the skills to be successful,” Robinson said before a group of teachers, district superintendents and other state officials at an education conference this past Tuesday in Orlando.
A few years ago Florida joined about 40 other states in adopting a nationalized education curriculum, called the common core to reach that goal. But those new learning standards also come with harder tests and greater demands on student learning.
“What aspect of life often gets easier? Very little. Things become more challenging. When you get to college, you have to take a test. We now have exams for people to play the quarterback position in the NFL. Assessments are part of life. And they shouldn’t be looked upon as punishment as much as a tool to understand progress,” Robinson said.
The state has been steadily increasing its demands for student learning in order to meet the common core standards. And the impact can be seen this year. For example, a harder writing test resulted in 70-percent of students failing it. Reading scores also came in lower than expected. Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho describes the results as a “market correction” in preparation for the nationalized curriculum rules.
“This is a necessary transition that for a while will result in a decline in student performance. At the local level, we are attempting to portray this evolution in standards that is driven by a moral and economic imperative that will serve Florida well in the future.”
The common core curriculum means that for the first time, the states, which have long had individual and unequal standards for student learning, will be united under a common goal. It’s also something that nations like Finland, Canada, Japan and South Korea—which have bypassed the U.S. in terms of student achievement—all have in common. The new learning standards have been endorsed by both Republican and Democratic Governors in more than 40 states, along with the American Federation of Teachers. But many educators say change is hard:
“I first thought, oh no, here comes one more change. Here comes another something where we’re going to have to stop what we’re doing,” said Ft. Meyers teacher Toni Washington-Knight, who admits admits her initial impression of the common core standards wasn’t very high. But fellow instructor Amy Rothenberg says their opinions on the new learning rules have changed since learning more about them.
“If we’re all on the same page, learning the same things, it helps us develop some understanding nationally--- not just my county thinks we’re doing what we’re supposed to, or my state thinks-- It just gives us some commonality across the country, I think it’s really important. I think it’s good…I hope,” Rothenberg said.
Florida’s transition to the new standards has been rocky, and has led to renewed questions over the value of standardized testing. Not everyone has been fully sold on the way the state has gone about ratcheting up its expectations for what students should know and when.
“I think we’re missing the communication piece, and I think people are not enamored with the FCAT, and I’m one of those people,” said Democratic State Representative Michelle Rehwinkle-Vasilinda of Tallahassee.” If our kids are teaching on a global economy, how are you testing them on a Florida FCAT? And then the $240 million we spend on the grading of the test… I think you can put that into training teachers for the common core.”
Vasilinda said Florida education officials dropped the ball on communicating how the FCAT ties in to the common core system. And she thinks the state is trying to do too much, too fast.
One of the key elements to Florida being successful is making sure that teachers are properly trained in what the nation expects students to learn. But the training is expensive, and some districts are further along in it than others. Earlier in the year, Governor Rick Scott vetoed funding for an education consortium that would have been the lead group conducting those training sessions for several rural North Florida districts that can’t afford it on their own.
Some states like Georgia, are starting the new common core curriculum this year. But Florida is phasing it in. Kindergarten-ers will start first in the upcoming school year, followed later by the higher grade levels. Florida expects to have common core fully in place by 2015.