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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Listen to Gates on testing timetable

Bill Gates’ foundation recommends that states wait at least two years before assigning high-stakes consequences to new Common Core State Standards testing schemes.

Bill Gates knows a thing or two about product development. So when the Microsoft billionaire's foundation recommends that states wait at least two years before assigning high-stakes consequences to new Common Core State Standards testing schemes, Tallahassee should listen. Maintaining Florida's already discredited school grading scheme simply for continuity's sake makes no sense. A change as big and as important as Common Core requires more time for transition without the stress that potentially flawed assessments will lead to unjust consequences.

Comments from Gates' foundation this week echo what Florida educators have been saying for the past year amid the state's bungled efforts to adopt a new battery of standardized tests to align with Florida Standards, the state's version of Common Core. The so-called subject tests have the potential to be far more palatable than the loathed FCAT they will replace, but only if the state gets them right. And so far, there's little reason for confidence. Florida abruptly succumbed to pressure from tea party critics in September and pulled out of a multistate consortium that was creating tests. That forced the Department of Education to adopt a rushed test-adoption plan, one that will provide no time for field testing before students take them next spring.

To their credit, county school superintendents asked lawmakers for a three-year hiatus from the state's school grading system, the A+ Plan, having little confidence that the tests will work perfectly from the start and providing teachers more time to adjust to the new requirements. Lawmakers instead agreed to just a one-year hiatus on consequences in 2014-15, though the grades still will be calculated — adding one more caveat to a system that has become so compromised in recent years with tweaks as to be meaningless and a constant distraction.

What the Gates foundation is advocating, frankly, is similar to the methodical approach it has underwritten in Hillsborough County as part of a major grant. The open letter from the Gates foundation's education policy director, Vicki Phillips, noted, "Even the best new ideas aren't self-fulfilling; they have to be put into practice wisely."

Common Core opponents have seized on the foundation's letter as fodder for more criticism, suggesting Gates is looking for cover for a major education reform his foundation has had a major investment in promoting. But that is one more piece of misdirection. Common Core is a set of standards 46 states embraced that are aimed at enabling states to finally gauge their students' progress against others nationally and internationally. How those standards are implemented, including what kinds of tests are used to measure progress, is left up to each state or school district.

What the Gates foundation is saying is that tying big consequences too soon to failing to meet the standards, before any assessments have been fully vetted, makes no sense, particularly for a change as significant as Common Core. Tallahassee should listen.