In Florida and dozens of other states, the gradual transition to the Common Core State Standards is one of the biggest yet least understood issues affecting public schools today. And it's gaining momentum as the 2013-14 academic year approaches.
States change their education standards all the time. It's part of a natural cycle in education, and rarely does the process get much attention. But when many states do it at the same time, and with a common goal, it changes the discussion. For those who have questions, we have some of the answers:
I've been hearing a lot about Common Core coming into our schools. What is it?
Common Core is the name of new education standards that are said to be more specific, more complex and more rigorous than Florida's current standards. These standards already have been adopted by Florida and more than 40 other states. They lay out the knowledge and skills students are required to know at each grade level, from kindergarten through high school. Officials say they will lead to distinct changes in how children are taught, the rate at which they are expected to learn and how they are tested. But exactly how these changes look and feel in schools will be determined by individual states, school districts, schools and teachers.
When will this happen?
It's already happening. Florida adopted the standards in 2010, and schools all over the state have been phasing them in over the past two years — especially in the lower grades. That process will continue when classes start this month, and all through the school year. The transition is expected to be complete by the 2014-15 academic year.
For years, we've heard from the state Department of Education that Florida's system sets the standard for the country. So why change it now?
Indeed, Florida's education leaders have for years described the current standards as rigorous. So the change is an acknowledgment that they weren't high enough to keep pace internationally. Students in other countries have been outperforming their U.S. peers in several areas, notably math and science. Businesses have been complaining that young Americans are graduating without the skills needed for the workforce. Colleges are seeing a problem, too. One 2011 study found that 75 percent of students who get high school diplomas are not ready for college coursework and often need remedial classes at universities and community colleges. The educators who wrote the Common Core standards say they set out to correct this.
You mentioned there will be changes in testing. Does that mean the FCAT is going away?
Yes. We think. This is expected to be the last year for the 15-year-old Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — praised by some, hated by others. Florida and the other Common Core states are in the process of developing new tests to go with the new standards. A decision on which tests will be used is expected this fall. If all goes as expected, the replacement tests would be administered starting in the 2014-15 school year. But several states, Florida included, are having a lively public debate over exactly how to test students under the new standards.
Will Florida's new standardized test be much different?
That's the plan, although nothing is set in stone. Here's what's being discussed to date: No more pencil and paper tests. All tests in grades 3 through 11 will be administered on computers, which is requiring school districts to buy more computers and ramp up bandwidth capacity so schools can operate them. The tests are expected to measure students' abilities in new and more subtle ways, which will require eight to 10 hours of testing during the school year. To accomplish that, districts may need to schedule as many as 20 testing days overall, up from about 12 for the FCAT. The tests are likely to be spread throughout the year rather than in the spring semester, which is when the FCAT is administered. The FCAT measures performance in reading, math, science and writing. The new tests will measure performance in math and English/language arts.
So how will these new standards change the classroom?
From here on out in Florida schools, teaching will look "increasingly different," according to the state. Students will be reading more nonfiction or "informational" texts. The material will be more complex, and teachers will focus more on how well students comprehend what they read. Students will be expected to write more and write better. They'll be pushed harder to explain what they write and back up assertions with hard evidence and examples, not opinions or feelings. There will be more overlapping of subjects, and greater emphasis will be placed on speaking and listening effectively. That will mean more class discussions. In math, teachers will drill down more narrowly, getting students to master fewer concepts in more depth. Experts predict many students will struggle at first; grades may suffer and test scores may not be as high. But they argue that learning comes through making mistakes and doing it correctly the next time.
Does everyone agree this is a good idea?
So far, the overwhelming majority of educators, state officials and politicians in both major parties say the Common Core State Standards are better than what Florida has now. But critics have complained that the change is part of an effort by the federal government to force a national curriculum on schools. Others say the biggest benefit will be to companies who will provide computers, tests and other wares needed to accomplish the change. Some say the standards are untested and too costly to implement. Florida has spent about $100 million on implementation so far, and the price tag is expected to rise.
What about the criticism that this is a federal takeover of our local schools?
The push to develop the new standards came not from the federal government but the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Their idea was to develop some consistency across the country on how students should be prepared for college and careers, especially those from military families who move a lot. The effort is not funded by the federal government, and no state was mandated to adopt the standards to receive federal funding. Proponents say the standards constitute educational goals and do not require teachers to teach a certain way.
Do the new standards impact charter schools and private schools?
Charters, yes, because they are public schools. Private schools, no.
Where can I get more information?
It's a complicated topic, but to get a good start, try these two websites: