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Student standards are in for overhaul

Florida is embarking on a dramatic course that will change the way schools define what students should know and when they should know it.

There will be new course guidelines for teaching students of all ages and new statewide tests to measure high-level knowledge _ not basic skills.

A basic question will be answered, as well: What exactly should my child know by the end of the school year?

State educators got the go-ahead for the new curriculum and assessment system on Tuesday. The governor and Cabinet approved the system as part of the the next, critical phase of a 1991 school reform effort called Blueprint 2000.

"We think it's a historic step in Florida education history," said Education Commissioner Frank Brogan.

The reform movement, stressing parental involvement, local control of schools and high standards, has moved from transition to reality in school districts across Florida over the past four years.

But the development of standards for students and a framework for testing has been a controversial component.

Brogan says Florida has relied on "the basic skills route" for too long, testing students on knowledge they should have mastered several grades earlier.

Florida used to test students in the third, fifth, eighth and 11th grades, said Tom Fisher, head of student assessment for the Department of Education. But those were "minimum skills" tests.

"In the minimum competency movement, in the fifth grade the test was geared toward third-grade skills," Fisher said.

No more.

Fisher said the new tests will emphasize reading, writing and math and include "challenging content" _ in other words, students would have to perform at least at their grade level.

The tests will be given three times during a student's career, in elementary, middle and high school. The exact time has not been determined, but Fisher said the obvious choice is in the fourth, eighth and 10th grades. Fourth-graders have finished the primary years, eighth-graders have finished the middle school years and 10th-graders can take the test and know if they need remedial work before graduation.

The new tests also will be performance-oriented, meaning they will have more than just multiple-choice questions looking for one answer.

Students might be asked to solve a math problem but explain how they did it, as well. That answer might take a full page because there could be various solutions to a problem, Fisher said.

The new tests will be in effect by the 1997-98 school year.

Meanwhile, state educators will be working on curriculum guidelines to develop the new tests.

The idea is to let students and parents know exactly what is expected. Should a third-grader, for example, have to know how to multiply by the end of the school year, or should that be a skill mastered by a second- or fourth-grader?

Educators might come up with guidelines for every grade, or just blocks of guidelines for elementary, middle and high school students.

Because of a federal grant, education officials have made the most progress on the new science curriculum, which focuses on what all students should know and recommends a shift to fewer topics and more in-depth coverage.

The curriculum is divided into eight "knowledge strands" that teach scientific concepts and emphasize use of knowledge. Some strands, for example, are energy, Earth and space, the nature of matter and the processes of life. In each area, educators have come up with examples of what all students should be able to do after studying the strand.

The new assessment system also involves retraining teachers and closely monitoring schools whose students aren't performing well.

Schools will be identified for "critically low" student performance and could be sanctioned. In a worst-case scenario, a school board could direct parents to send students elsewhere _ to a school that is performing well _ and the low-performing school would be reorganized with a new principal and staff.

Brogan said he hopes schools won't reach that point.

Gov. Lawton Chiles applauded the new direction.

"It looks like what you're going to do now is going to have a lot more bite to it, a lot more meaning."