It’s been a rocky week for Florida’s education system. The State Board of Education has reinstituted a rule preventing school grades from dropping more than a letter. The move comes amid continuing efforts to transition to tougher learning goals for students, called the Common Core. Meanwhile, legislative leaders are expressing doubts about new Common Core-aligned tests and want Florida to create its own assessments.
“As a parent the biggest concern I have is the career tracking and data mining that going to be done on kids, mostly attached to the assessment," said Meredith Mears, a Leon County parent with two kids in public school. "And the rewriting of the privacy laws, where any 3rd party has access to their personal information without parental consent.”
Mears is with the group Florida Parents Against Common Core.
Florida already collects lots of student data and it already tracks students. A measure in the 2013 Florida legislature would have essentially codified the Florida Department of Education’s student tracking, but it died amid opposition from groups opposed to Common Core. Mears says she supports tougher standards, but she doesn’t like the way Florida has gone about putting them in place. Nor does she like the role the federal government has played in encouraging states to participate in Common Core.
“That whole ‘dangling the carrot’ in front of them. When Race to the Top came out, they had 2 months to apply. They didn’t have the standards. They weren’t even written by then. So they adopted the standards not knowing what they were going to be.”
Race To the Top was an initiative by the Obama Administration pitting states against one another for millions of federal dollars, encouraging states to adopt higher standards like those in the common core.
But in a letter to Florida’s Education Commissioner this week, Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) and House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) asked for Florida to be withdrawn from a key part of the Common Core standards system: the tests tied to it.
"What we don’t know is the timeliness of PARCC results in terms of their use in evaluating teachers," said Gaetz. "What we don’t know is all of the technology requirements. But what we do know about the technology requirements, thus far, is that there is no school district in the state of Florida that has the technological foundation that PARCC says is necessary to even do the tests.”
Gaetz says the new Common Core-linked tests, called PARCC, should be scrapped in favor of something that’s been vetted more, like the SAT or ACT. Florida and about 20 other states have signed on to the PARCC tests, which would replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
“PARCC doesn’t even exist. That’s the whole problem. The data security and systems haven’t been securely developed or tested. And from what we know from our own department for education, PARCC tests would consume 20 more days of testing. That’s more than we have now.”
Prior to the letter urging Florida to withdraw from the tests, the State Board of Education adopted an emergency rule preventing school grades from dropping more than a letter each year. The move was preceded by warnings from local officials that stagnant reading and math results on this year’s FCAT test would lead to more than 150 more schools receiving failing grades. But the decision to prevent the letter grade drops was approved in a narrow vote. Board member Sally Bradshaw calls it an attempt to disguise low performance.
“Is it acceptable to tell my high school student or any student that he has an A when he really has a B or C? No one on this call would suggest doing that for a child’s grade. So I don’t understand, commissioner, why we would consider that for schools," Bradshaw said during a recent board meeting.
Common Core and its tests are set to be fully in place by 2015, and in an effort to get there, the state has been steadily increasing the scores needed to demonstrate proficiency on state exams. In the past three years alone, there have been several dozen changes to Florida’s A-F school grading scale, and Board member Kathleen Shanahan, one of the longest-serving board members, says she no longer believes the system is accurate:
“We’ve overcomplicated the model, and I don’t think it’s a statistically relevant model. I believe that, with my biochemistry-math background. So my concern is, I am not sure the A-B-C-D-F’s are still as relevant with all the stuff we’ve added to that matrix.”
But Florida education commissioner Tony Bennett says none of the recent discussion over school grades or new state exams mean Florida is backing away from common core standards.
Bennett and other board members were already considering alternatives to the common-core aligned PARCC exams. States including Oklahoma, Alabama, Kentucky and New York are going with alternative systems like the ACT or SAT to measure student learning, and Bennett says it’s possible Florida could even adopt a hybrid system, that would rely on the PARCC exams currently in development for lower grade levels, and the ACT or SAT for higher grades. Bennett says he wants to see the state essentially freeze the system where it is now.
“Is FCAT the assessment for 2013-14? That’s always been the plan. We’ll also be finding ways to field test an assessment via PARCC or others...with full implementation to common core assessments in 2014-15.”
Local school officials see the freeze as a positive step as Florida continues implementing Common Core. But its opponents, including parents like Meredith Mears give the Common Core in Florida an “F”.