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Florida education leaders recommend changes to controversial Common Core benchmarks

Published Jan. 14, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Hoping to incorporate public input and assuage criticism, state education officials on Monday released 98 proposed changes to the controversial Common Core State Standards and christened them the Florida Standards.

The suggestions represent additions and minor tweaks to the national benchmarks, which have been adopted in more than 45 states and outline what students should know at each grade level. Among state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart's recommendations: adding 52 new calculus standards, requiring students to master cursive writing — a skill not included in the original Common Core standards — and introducing money concepts in first grade, instead of second.

Stewart said the proposed changes would strengthen the benchmarks and make them unique to Florida.

"With your input, we have strengthened our standards to ensure they are the best and highest standards, so that all of Florida students graduate from high school prepared for success in college, career and in life," she said in a statement Monday.

But opponents were unconvinced. They said even revised standards would constitute federal overreach, and renewed their calls for a complete overhaul.

"Adding (standards) does not make these Florida's own standards by any means," said Laura Zorc, a Vero Beach mom and co-founder of Florida Parents Against Common Core.

The state Education Department will hold workshops on the recommended changes in Tallahassee at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. today.

The state Board of Education will weigh in at a Feb. 18 meeting in Orlando.

Schools across Florida are already transitioning to the Common Core State Standards, and the state Education Department is developing new Common Core aligned tests.

Still, the benchmarks have become a point of contention in education circles, as well as a political wedge issue.

Supporters, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, favor Common Core because the standards stress analysis and critical thinking.

But some tea party groups and conservative parents say they disapprove of the federal government playing a role in the education benchmarks. They point out that even though the Common Core standards were created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, federal grant money was used to create some of the Common Core tests.

A smaller group of liberal critics worry the broader movement places too much emphasis on testing.

The debate boiled over in Florida last summer, prompting Republican Gov. Rick Scott to call for a series of public hearings and a review of the benchmarks.

State education officials held three town-hall style meetings in October, and received more than 19,000 comments through the Internet. A third-party analysis commissioned by the Department of Education found that about 24 percent of the comments were supportive of the Common Core; about 28 percent of comments were unfavorable and the rest could not be classified.

Stewart said the 98 proposed changes grew out of that feedback.

Amelia Larson, Pasco County assistant superintendent for student achievement, said she found very little of note within the standards revisions.

"I think the changes in (the language arts standards) are minor," she said. "They're just some word changes that in no way change the spirit of the standards."

Larson expressed hope that might allow the state's transition to the Common Core to continue.

"If this is going to provide peace, then so be it," Larson said.

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the revisions might not be enough to allay concerns. But he was glad to see the Education Department acknowledge the need for some changes to the math standards.

"I do think that the work that was done is encouraging," Carvalho said. "It's a step in the right direction."

Sarasota GOP chairman Joe Gruters, who had opposed the Common Core standards, said the tweaks were enough to satisfy him.

"This rollout is an example of the (state Education Department) listening to the fact that people wanted change," he said. "There is not a major overhaul here, but there are some important changes. It's a great start."

But Randy Osborne, a political consultant and co-founder of Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, said he would continue to advocate for sweeping changes.

"We need to do more than change the name," he said.

Critics are still making their case. Last week, a caucus of state executive committeemen voted to oppose the benchmarks at a Republican Party gathering in Orlando. Leaders of the state House and Senate have expressed their support for the standards. A bill by Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, seeking to end Florida's participation in Common Core has a slim chance of getting heard.

Times/Herald staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick, Jeffrey S. Solochek and Danny Valentine contributed to this report.

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