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Florida students' poor showing on international tests ignites debate on education system

Published Dec. 8, 2013

A sampling of high school kids whiffed on a big exam this year, and many people are worried.

Last week's results in the Program for International Student Assessment — a series of tests given to 15-year-olds in 65 education systems around the world — showed U.S. students lagging far behind many of their peers in math, science and reading. Florida students fared even worse.

The PISA tests aim to assess how well students apply their knowledge to real-life situations, and the poor results triggered a slew of finger-wagging and calls for higher standards.

"There's no excuse," wrote former governor Jeb Bush. "We can't sit idle," said Students First state director Nikki Lowery.

But are Florida high school students really as unprepared for the job market and college as these results suggest?

Local and state civic and business leaders have two answers: Yes. But educators are starting to address the problem.

"We have spent way too much time preparing kids for school and not nearly enough time preparing kids for what they're going to be doing for the rest of their lives," said Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation.

Businesses across the state, especially those in technical fields, report difficulty finding viable job candidates. That includes information technology, medicine and high-tech manufacturing.

One solution: more career education that adds relevance for students in the classroom.

"We have to do a much better job of aligning eduction to what's needed," Boehm said.

"Applied learning is a no-brainer," he said. "It helps engage kids and make learning real."

Many districts are well on the way to that goal. In Pinellas County, the number of high school academies and magnet programs has grown significantly in recent years, with themes ranging from engineering and medicine to graphic and culinary arts. Hillsborough County has become a leader in academies and magnets, sending many students out of their zoned schools.

Jennifer Grove, vice chairwoman of Workforce Florida, said the inability to find qualified workers in some fields is a growing issue in the state. Many industries say they're getting workers that just can't hack it.

"They're all saying that students are coming out not prepared — without intervention," she said.

That stems from students' lack of awareness about what careers await them in the workforce — and what is needed to obtain those jobs — as well as a dearth of educational opportunities, Grove said.

Like Boehm, she favors any kind of learning that allows students to apply academic principles.

Stuart Rogel, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, said local businesses also report a skills gap.

"At the end of the day, yes, it is a significant impact on our ability as a region, state and nation to be competitive and attract the kind of businesses we want to attract," he said.

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He said it's simple math: The more skilled the workforce is, the more highly skilled jobs a community creates. And the more good jobs there are, the higher the wages and the greater the prosperity.

But there's no simple solution.

In recent days, many have used the low PISA results to call for continued implementation of Common Core State Standards, which have come under heavy fire in Florida in recent months.

Supporters argue the standards, which emphasize interpretation and analysis, would help students do better on exams which emphasize real-world problems.

But, Rogel said, "it's not about just cracking the whip and saying schools need to make better trained students. It's about our society."

Phil Jones, president of the Hillsborough Education Foundation, says he hears the call for more skilled technical personnel and how hard it is to fill those positions.

He said there has been a sea of change in the schools, with educators recognizing that not everyone will be going to college and beginning to address the needs of businesses.

Jones questions how much people should read into international measures like the PISA tests, saying they compare a diverse American population to more homogeneous populations in other countries.

He said districts in Florida face issues — language barriers, a large transient population, greater inclusion — that other school systems do not.

Susan Pareigis, president and CEO of the Florida Council of 100, said in an email that the PISA results translate directly into a larger talent gap in the economy. She cited recent numbers showing that roughly 70 percent of first-time Florida college students need remediation in at least one subject area.

"This means that finding skilled workers is still tough," she said.

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