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Florida education standards: Uncertainty in post-FCAT world

6:03 AM, Feb 24, 2014   |    comments
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(News-press.com) - If the Legislature adjourns after its upcoming session without passing a single education-related bill, there will still be big changes coming to Florida classrooms this fall.

During the 2014-15 school year, students are expected to be measured for the first time using new education standards in language, arts and math. A new test tied to the standards is set to replace the FCAT. The results will be used to calculate letter grades issued to schools, and evaluations for teachers, which will affect their pay and job security in the years that follow.

By May, lawmakers will decide how to prepare for them.

"We call them the Four Horsemen - the teacher evaluation, standardized testing, standards, and then the grading system," House Speaker Will Weatherford said.

During the upcoming legislative session, he said, "I think they all have to be dealt with to some extent."

The state Board of Education last week approved changes that Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said should "lay to rest" questions about what direction the state will take when it comes to standards. But uncertainty lingers over the remaining issues. Stewart is in talks now with a testing vendor that will provide the state's next standardized test, and says she expects to reach an agreement by March.

New standards and tests will require teachers and schools to be judged in new ways. In states like New York, which moved more quickly than Florida to test students and evaluate teachers based on the Common Core State Standards, the benchmarks have come under fire.

Groups, including the Florida PTA and the state teachers union, which have supported Common Core, which formed the basis for the rechristened Florida Standards - have called for the state to give schools more time to prepare for the new standards before holding schools and teachers accountable for the results.

"I wish everything would be ready to go in August, but I do not think Florida is in a position now to start to pull the trigger this fall," state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said. "Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe between now and the beginning of school, I can be convinced otherwise. But we're sitting here in February, and the testing instrument for the students won't be selected until March, and the instrument we use will have an impact on teacher evaluations, and their pay, and their livelihoods."

As lawmakers ponder tweaks to the state's teacher evaluations, courts are expected to hear arguments in two cases brought by the Florida Education Association.

The 1st District Court of Appeal in March will hear arguments challenging the state board's authority to set a scoring system for teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, and a federal court in Gainesville is set to hear a case April 1 that argues it is unconstitutional to evaluate teachers based on scores from students in subjects they do not teach themselves.

Legislation passed last year requires school districts to evaluate teachers based on scores from their own students, in the subjects that they teach. But school districts and lawmakers alike have questioned whether they will have exams ready in every grade and every subject in time for next school year.

"A lot of that goes live this year, and we believe that there are some flaws in the way that the teacher performance laws are in place now," Weatherford said. "There needs to be some clarification, and some fairness embedded into it."

The education committees in both chambers have begun drawing up plans for revamping school grades and teacher evaluations, which they are expected to take up during the early weeks of the session.

Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have said the state needs a new school grading system that's easier for the public to understand. Along with Stewart, they have considered adjusting the consequences associated with school grades. But they have also stressed that the state should continue issuing letter grades.

"If we're going to keep score when we play football or run track or play basketball, then we need to keep score in the classroom," Gaetz said. "I've heard of no proposal to take down the scoreboard."

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