Jeb Bush: Not whether to test our children, but how

Published July 19, 2013

The hardest lesson to learn about education reform is that it never gets any easier.

We have made remarkable progress in improving public education in Florida. Yet we haven't made nearly enough progress.

Going forward only becomes more difficult as we embrace our most daunting challenge yet — ensuring that when a kid walks across the stage in his cap and gown and shakes the principal's hand, he is prepared to move on to college or a meaningful career.

For some students, that is not an issue. For many more, it is.

And that is what led us to the Common Core State Standards. These standards set the bar at a college/career-ready threshold for all kids.

Setting the bar, however, doesn't mean clearing it. To do that, it is critical that we accurately measure student progress in meeting the standards we have set for them.

Good standards without good tests are nothing more than a Santa Claus wish list.

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett recognizes this. Florida has been part of a consortium of states known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers working to develop new tests.

Even as this has been taking place, Bennett has been exploring other options should PARCC assessments not be the right path for Florida.

In March, Bennett told the state Board of Education that he was working on a Plan B. Options he is considering include using the SAT or ACT to test high school students, borrowing from assessments that have been developed by other states or Florida developing its own assessments.

Or it may turn out that adopting the PARCC tests is not feasible for the 2014-15 school year but that they remain a future option.

I do not know what path Bennett will recommend to the Board of Education. But I do know he is an expert on Common Core and PARCC. I am confident he will not rush into a decision and that what is best for students will be at the forefront of his decision-making.

There is much to evaluate. The tests must align with the new standards. They must generate valid, high-quality results in a timely manner. They must be transparent and create a well-defined path to guide teachers. They must protect the privacy of student data.

Last, they must allow us to compare student achievement in Florida with student achievement in high-performing states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. To elevate our kids, we must measure them against the best.

Effective tests backed by accountability provisions drive results. What gets measured gets done.

Those who have opposed these reforms fail to remember the state of education before accountability. It was a time when almost half of Florida's fourth- graders were illiterate and our graduation rate hovered around 50 percent.

It wasn't that long ago that Florida's education system was a national disgrace. And now we are national leaders in advancing student achievement, largely because we no longer turn a blind eye to kids falling through the cracks.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

We must refocus the discussion on testing to one of quality. The next generation of tests must go beyond our current FCAT assessments and delve into a student's depth of knowledge.

The initial results will be disheartening. As I noted earlier, our job isn't getting any easier. Florida is in a time of transition. We must have clear expectations and a plan that guides the implementation of new, higher standards, the measurement of those standards, and a calculation that reveals students' progress and achievement in a clear, transparent way for principals, teachers and parents.

For 15 years Florida's leaders and teachers have had the courage to make our children the priority. My hope is that in moving forward we don't deviate from that course.

The pressure to put the adults first will never subside, but that comes at the expense of far too many children whose success or failure in life depends on those few years spent in a classroom.

Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999-2007 and is chairman of the Foundation for Florida's Future and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.