Florida’s new academic standards are ‘weak,’ outside review says

A rushed rewrite led to inadequacies, but reviewers say delays caused by the coronavirus outbreak could give the state time to improve the new standards.
Chancellor Jacob Oliva explains recommended new academic standards in language arts and math to the Florida Board of Education in February. The board unanimously adopted the proposal.
Chancellor Jacob Oliva explains recommended new academic standards in language arts and math to the Florida Board of Education in February. The board unanimously adopted the proposal. [ Florida Department of Education ]
Published June 9, 2020|Updated June 10, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis called a special news conference in January to boast about Florida’s new educational standards, something he had promised a year earlier to appeal to his conservative base.

Gone were the controversial Common Core standards that many critics had blasted as an unworkable federal mandate. In their place, DeSantis said, was common sense.

These would serve as a model for the nation, the governor declared. He named them the Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking, which, as the acronym BEST suggested, met the state’s pledge to have the finest standards around.

Related: Fifth time in 24 years. Why Florida is changing school standards, again

Such claims prompted the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to explore whether DeSantis’ statements were accurate, or just a marketing ploy. The Washington D.C.-based education think tank, which has reviewed state standards for two decades, released its findings Tuesday.

The analysis found that Florida’s new math and language arts standards — formally adopted by the State Board of Education in February — were weak compared not only to the Common Core, which the institute supported, but also in comparison to guidelines from other states that either abandoned or never adopted the core.

“They are capital letter BEST,” institute president Michael Petrilli said. “But they are not lower-case best. They are not the best.”

The institute brought in five academics from major universities, each of whom was involved in crafting the Common Core, to conduct its review. They contended that Florida had headed down a positive path with its initiative.

However, they wrote, the hasty nature of the rewrite, which took place in less than a year, left many glaring inadequacies.

In the language arts portion, for instance, they argue that the standards demand rigor and are clear and measurable. Yet the expectations do not include any direction for reading of specific disciplines, such as science, and they do not have requirements for listening critically.

“Similar omissions riddle these standards: Students will certainly learn to comprehend what they read, but any kind of critical or evaluative analysis of what they read is barely apparent,” the analysis states.

In math, the reviewers determined that Florida had covered all the important areas well. However, it placed a heavy emphasis on the procedures at the expense of understanding how concepts connect.

DeSantis had received many complaints from parents that their children, especially at the elementary level, needed to learn things such as multiplication tables rather than the abstract math lessons they were receiving.

“They went very far to another extreme,” Petrilli said.

The report also noted “many technical and language errors” throughout the math section, among other concerns.

Department of Education officials said they were “thrilled” that the Fordham report confirmed their stance that Florida had shed itself of the Common Core.

Spokeswoman Taryn Fenske reiterated the administration’s stance that the Common Core, on which Florida’s previous standards were built, had produced stagnant results that required a change.

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“Florida restored a culture of being big and bold for all Florida students,” Fenske said via email. “If we are not bold, we deny our children equitable access to the lifelong opportunities that they all deserve.”

At the same time, she noted that the report’s authors have been “personally, and financially, invested in keeping Common Core in states across the nation. These authors have countless books for sale analyzing and outlining how to teach and learn Common Core.”

“The reality is that the main motivation for their report is to prevent states across the nation from following Florida’s lead,” Fenske said.

Patricia Levesque, who runs Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, said she hoped the state would not turn the report into a debate over the politics of Common Core, a model her organization has also supported. Rather, she said, it needs to be a starting point to see if Florida’s standards can be improved.

“Other states like Indiana have separated from Common Core and maintained strong standards,” Levesque said. “It’s clear you can do both.”

She suggested the State Board of Education might take the time before the new standards are fully implemented to look at the Fordham recommendations and consider changes. High expectations are important for preparing students, Levesque said, right along with a strong accountability system, rich content and a host of other factors.

If weaknesses exist, she said, the state should tackle them.

Petrilli agreed. He said much of what exists in Florida’s standards is valuable, but that they just are missing some things.

“Particularly in English, if they finish the job, they could be a model,” he said.

School systems are not focused right now on adapting the new standards anyway, as their attention is on creating safe environments for returning to classrooms after being closed for COVID-19. Overcoming anticipated learning losses is another critical item taking priority.

“It’s a good excuse to press the pause button and fix things,” Petrilli said.