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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Education chief faces his biggest test

Florida was one of the early leaders of a group of states developing tests for the Common Core State Standards, and it manages the money for the group, which is funded by a federal grant. Yet House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz want Florida to pull out of the organization and design its own tests. They have not made a compelling argument, and Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett should proceed with caution.
Published Jul. 26, 2013

Florida was one of the early leaders of a group of states developing tests for the Common Core State Standards, and it manages the money for the group, which is funded by a federal grant. Yet House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz want Florida to pull out of the organization and design its own tests. They have not made a compelling argument, and Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett should proceed with caution.

The Common Core State Standards are the next big thing in public education. They have been adopted by Florida and more than 40 other states, and they spell out the types of knowledge and skills students should possess as they advance from kindergarten through high school. The idea is to better prepare students to enter the workforce or attend college, and for those broad standards to be consistent throughout the country. That means there have to be new tests to go with the standards and replace the much maligned FCAT starting in the 2014-15 school year. Ideally, the results of the new tests would enable apples-to-apples comparisons from state to state and replace the patchwork of tests that make it difficult to determine how Florida students compare to their peers in North Carolina or Indiana.

That benefit would be undercut if Florida pulled out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Gaetz, R-Niceville, cite several concerns that appear overblown or easier to resolve within PARCC than by quitting the group. For example, their letter to Bennett last week says the PARCC assessments will take about 20 days of testing for students. That is misleading at best. Individual students in third grade, for example, would face eight hours of testing at midyear and eight hours at the end of the year. The 20 days refers to the maximum window schools might need to get all students tested at the middle and end of the year, and the window could be as narrow as five days.

The legislators also raise concerns that too many schools lack enough computers and bandwidth to efficiently administer the tests, the cost will be too high and security will be too lax. But PARCC estimated this week the cost would be less per student than Florida pays now for each FCAT. And why couldn't these issues be more effectively resolved working through a national consortium where Florida already wields considerable influence than by designing a separate assessment plan?

Weatherford says he still supports the Common Core State Standards, and former Gov. Jeb Bush remains a strong advocate. But the unexpected call by the legislative leaders to pull out of the group designing the assessments is a ploy to appease conservative groups who see the new standards as too much national interference and want them repealed. Some conservatives are praising the idea that Florida would drop out of PARCC and argue that strengthens the case for repealing the standards. That would be a mistake and set back state and national efforts to raise the bar for public education.

If Bennett agrees with legislative leaders to pull out of the national group and create Florida's own assessments, his proposal has to be better than PARCC's. Bush suggests Bennett could propose using the ACT or SAT for high school students, which might be a viable alternative. But that doesn't solve the problem of creating assessments for elementary and middle school students. This is Bennett's biggest test so far, and the last thing Florida needs is another discredited assessment scheme that confuses students and parents.

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