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Florida Board of Education approves Common Core tweaks during heated meeting

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart submitted a new plan to tweak school grading formulas.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart submitted a new plan to tweak school grading formulas.
Published Feb. 19, 2014

ORLANDO — Ending a months-long debate over the benchmarks used to teach millions of Florida public school students, the state Board of Education on Tuesday approved revisions to the Common Core State Standards, now known as Florida Standards.

Board members also expressed support for a simplified school grading formula, as well as a plan by state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to continue issuing school grades during the transition to the new standards.

The state superintendents association has been pushing for temporary suspension of the long-standing A-F system.

"We think it's critical to get it right before we impose any penalties," Orange County superintendent Barbara Jenkins said Tuesday. "Teacher pay for performance, administrative pay for performance, graduation, promotion — all of those high-stakes measures need to be dealt with gently and precisely in any school grading system."

But Stewart insisted even a brief hiatus from the accountability system would hurt children and schools.

"If we don't issue those grades that first year, what will happen [is] that same shock will just be delayed by a year," she said.

Both issues were raised during an unusually heated meeting of the state Board of Education held at the Orange County School District headquarters.

About 100 members of the public showed up to protest the new state education standards.

During the public hearing, one opponent of the benchmarks slammed his fist on the podium and threatened to retaliate against board members on the Internet. Others booed from their seats in the audience.

At one point, state Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand threatened to stop taking public comments if the clapping and cheering continued.

"You be respectful, we'll be respectful!" one man shouted from the audience.

The state education system is in the middle of a dramatic overhaul.

Four years ago, Florida joined 45 other states and the District of Columbia in adopting the national education benchmarks known as the Common Core State Standards. The standards outline what students should know at each grade level.

But when tea party activists deemed the Common Core an example of federal overreach last year, Republican Gov. Rick Scott asked for a review of the benchmarks and a series of public hearings on the issue.

Stewart proposed a series of tweaks and clarifications, along with new calculus benchmarks and a requirement that students master cursive writing. She also gave the revised benchmarks a new name: the Florida Standards.

The revised standards came up for a vote on Tuesday.

But the critics who traveled to Orlando were not satisfied. They called on the board to dump the standards entirely.

"These are cosmetic changes," said Emma Jane Miller, a former private-school teacher from Brandon. "The standards are still the Common Core standards, which we believe will harm our students."

Despite the opposition, the board voted unanimously to approve the revised standards.

"The most important thing is that we move forward with these standards," board member John Colon said. "We can't continue to delay them. They've been reviewed thoroughly."

Later in the meeting, Stewart pivoted to another high-profile issue: simplifying the school grading formula.

Stewart wants the formula to focus more on student performance and improvement in the core subject areas.

She has proposed removing the triggers that automatically cause a school grade to drop, including a rule requiring schools be docked one full letter grade if fewer than 25 percent of students are reading on grade level.

She has also suggested stripping SAT and ACT scores and five-year graduation rates from the formula used to evaluate high schools. The formula would still include a measure of performance and participation in Advanced Placement coursework.

Under Stewart's plan, schools would not be penalized for poor grades in 2014-15. Struggling schools would still receive extra help.

Board members did not vote on the proposal Tuesday.

Criticism came later from the Florida Education Association, the Florida PTA and the grass roots parent group Fund Education Now.

All three groups, along with the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, are calling for a suspension of school grades while Florida transitions to new standards and state tests, which will be selected next month.

"Florida needs a pause in this madness," union president Andy Ford said. "School grades are underpinned by high stakes testing. Even with the education commissioner's proposed grading simplification, grades will still be largely based on high stakes testing — a test we don't even have yet."

The Legislature will have the final say.

On Tuesday, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said he expects the Senate Education Committee to unveil a bill on school grades in the next few weeks.

Times/Herald staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Michael Vasquez contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com.

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