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What Gov. Ron DeSantis gets right in his new education standards | Editorial

The governor proposes many commonsense reforms, but Florida still needs national benchmarks.
The Florida Board of Education on Wednesday will consider new education standards proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that include a reduction in standardized tests. (Times files)
The Florida Board of Education on Wednesday will consider new education standards proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that include a reduction in standardized tests. (Times files)
Published Feb. 11

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to overhaul the state’s education standards, which goes before the Florida Board of Education on Wednesday, makes many moves in the right direction. It reduces testing, makes it easier for parents to help with math homework, encourages the reading of books rather than mere passages and lays out clear expectations from grade to grade. These are thoughtful, intelligent changes. Its main flaw is in the promise it makes but can’t measure -- how Florida’s students compare with the nation and, indeed, the world.

The Board of Education will consider two massive plans, running to nearly 450 pages in all -- one for math and the other for language arts. The preface to the reading blueprint calls for “Florida students to receive a world-class education to prepare them for jobs of the future” and to make “Florida the most literate state in the nation.” Those are worthy goals, but how will Floridians know if they have been met?

In its headlong retreat from the Common Core, Florida abandoned one thing Common Core certainly got right: All states should agree on standards defining what American students should know so they can be compared to each other across the entire nation and reach benchmarks that show they are educated to be productive, thoughtful citizens. Running away from Common Core was easy. After all, it managed to be reviled by both the right (for supposed federal government overreach, though the plan was agreed to by the states themselves) and the left (for over-testing students and too rigidly regimenting the classroom).

Florida’s students will be competing in an international economy, and it’s important they know where they stand. The governor’s proposal should include a path toward making those comparisons possible. It’s inadequate to rely on the SAT -- which is supposed to gauge college preparedness, not mastery of Florida’s new standards -- or on the Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given every two years in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades with state-by-state comparisons only in reading and math. That’s not enough information to see how Florida’s students stack up.

The governor’s proposals get many things right. They streamline testing, starting by eliminating the ninth-grade language arts test and working to eliminate a geometry test. The state would offer every junior a chance to take either the SAT or ACT at state expense, which could be a boon to low-income students making plans for college. DeSantis would add a mandatory civics exam, but passing it would not be a graduation requirement. On math, the plan encourages students to find their own best way to solve problems and recognizes the value in some basic skills, such as memorizing multiplication tables, in addition to understanding the the concepts. On reading, the blueprint correctly stresses that reading isn’t just a mechanical skill but rather a way to acquire knowledge, learn history and civics, and enjoy great works. The standards include book lists, allowing teachers and students to immerse themselves in important literature rather than skipping from one chunk of text to another.

Overall, the governor’s plan to revamp education standards is a series of commonsense moves that should give teachers more independence to help their students hit meaningful benchmarks, reduce standardized testing and make the classroom a more enriching experience. But for the state to accurately claim to be offering a world-class education to its students, it still needs to figure out a way to compare its students to others across the nation and the world. That’s a test the state itself has yet to pass.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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