Florida goes solo on Common Core tests

And the early coverage does some things well--but key questions remain to be tackled

MIAMI, FL — When Gov. Rick Scott announced last week he was pulling Florida out of a multi-state consortium working to create tests that will assess students’ mastery of the new Common Core curriculum standards beginning next school year, the news appropriately drew wide coverage from the state’s press corps.

Journalists here sketched out in broad terms what the news meant, what it didn’t mean, and what it might mean. And reporters and commentators alike noted the political calculation driving Scott’s decision—and the shallowness of his explanation for the move.

But there are opportunities here for Sunshine State reporters to pursue this story further—in some cases, by following the lead of reporters across the state line in Georgia.

The coverage so far

Perhaps the most thorough write-ups came from the Sun-Sentinel’s Scott Travis and Kathleen Haughney and Kathleen McGrory of the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times joint Tallahassee bureau. Both articles noted that Scott’s announcement did not mean Florida is abandoning the Common Core standards themselves—just that the state will now administer its own, Florida-specific test to measure student progress. The Herald/Times article rounded up “divided” response from education leaders around the state, while the Sun-Sentinel focused on the move’s uncertain effect on “everything from teacher evaluations to merit pay to school grades.” The Sun-Sentinel also noted that the Republican governor’s decision was driven at least in part by conservative Tea Party activists, who see the Common Core—an attempt to set unified benchmarks for student learning around the country—as a “federal intrusion” into state and local school policy.

In the Tallahassee Democrat, columnist Paul Flemming hit the political angle hard. Because the curriculum standards remain in effect, the actual impact of Scott’s announcement on classroom instruction or “Florida’s education autonomy” will be marginal at best, he wrote—but Scott had managed to convince many people otherwise: “It was a tea party dog whistle, and it worked to perfection.”

A couple blog posts at the Tampa Bay Times’ “Gradebook” blog also took a closer look at Scott’s anti-fed talking points. McGrory added to her main article with a post detailing reporters’ unsuccessful attempts to get the governor to explain how, exactly, a test that will be commissioned by a consortium of states represented an “entry point” for federal intrusion. And while the consortium’s efforts are supported by federal funding, the Times’ Jeffrey S. Solocheck noted that the federal government already “intrudes” on education in Florida by sending the state upwards of $1 billion annually—a situation Scott doesn’t seem to object to.

That’s a solid start. But here are some questions Florida reporters might examine more closely as this story unfolds.

What’s different about Common Core?

The big policy shift underlying the recent developments is the adoption in Florida—and many other states—of the Common Core standards. That’s not exactly news: as a recent Ocala Star-Banner interview with Pam Stewart, the state’s education commissioner, points out, districts have been phasing in changes to implement Common Core for the past three years.

But though it began to be introduced several years ago, descriptions in the latest coverage of what Common Core is all about, how it’s changing instruction, and why it’s controversial tend to be boilerplate. This was the he-said/she-said recap of the debate in the Herald/Times article on Scott’s decision:

Supporters say the new benchmarks emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills. Opponents take issue with the federal government making decisions about standards and assessments, arguing that education decisions should be left to state and local governments.

Stewart, in the Star-Banner interview, offered a slightly fuller explanation. And at the Times blog, Solochek reported on support for the Common Core standards from local school administrators.

But reporters can do more to explain to students and parents what the new curriculum is about—perhaps by focusing on what, if anything, has changed in the places that are farthest along in implementing it. Has conversion to the new benchmarks resulted in any meaningful changes? If so, what are they?

There are follow-up questions to be asked, too. For the opponents: what specifically about the changes do they oppose? Is something objectionable happening in Florida classrooms, or is the controversy just about the more abstract idea of federal meddling? And for the proponents, including some educators: every educational modification is touted as bolstering “critical thinking,” but how exactly is instruction now and in the near future better than it was a few years ago? And, importantly: how will we be able to judge whether Common Core is a success?

The details of education policy can admittedly be dry stuff, but the political developments offer a news hook. And the state is about to hold town hall meetings on the Common Core standards, which means there will be a forum to discuss these questions.

Is there time for new tests?

Florida was supposed to begin using new tests designed to assess the Common Core standards during the 2014-2015 school year. The state will now need to find a vendor to supply those tests by March so they can be rolled out in time, which state officials says is doable.

But it’s worth noting that the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the 19-state consortium Scott pulled out of, has been working on this project for three years.

PARCC notified a sampling of school districts in each of the 19 states back in early September that they had been chosen to field test the new assessments this spring. The field test was designed to make sure the assessments go as planned, and to give school districts an opportunity to have some input into what works, and potentially, what doesn’t.

Under the new direction, will any school in Florida have an opportunity to field test a vendor-provided assessment? And if not, hasn’t Scott’s decision given Florida teachers, students and parents less input into the new assessment than they would have had?

The danger of rushing the development of new tests is real. Across the state line in Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in September published a multi-part investigation into problems with the high-stakes tests that have proliferated since passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Reporter Heather Vogell turned up test questions to which there was no right answer, or multiple right answers; errors in scoring the tests; technical glitches that left students unable to complete tests, or in the worst cases wrongly prevented them from graduating; and a general lack of accountability for the testing companies. (Vogell did most of the reporting while on a Spencer Education Fellowship at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.)

The contractors who create the tests and score them told the AJC that rushed deadlines were often to blame for the problems.

Even as testing companies received public floggings for errors, lawmakers and education officials failed to address why the tests were derailing or how government contributed to breakdowns.

Some industry executives acknowledge their immense challenges, which include an unprecedented volume of test-takers and demanding federal and state timelines for reporting scores.

Those deadlines have sometimes left testing contractors without enough time to figure out why something didn’t look right, said Stuart Kahl, co-founder of testing company Measured Progress.

“So we had to go for it,” he said. “That’s not a situation you want to be in.”

At the same time, cash-strapped states have struggled to hire and retain staff to provide oversight. Too often, they leave contractors to police themselves, some experts say.

Vogell found little reason for confidence that the new Common Core tests would be any better. Importantly, she notes that states that have left the two consortia of states developing Common Core tests, also face challenges:

States that have bowed out of the common tests, including Georgia and Indiana, will face similar issues, whether they create new tests alone or partner with smaller groups of states. Some will work with a smaller budget than the states that belong to consortia.

The Gainesville Sun and the Ocala Star-Banner ran condensed version of the AJC investigation on their front pages this past weekend.

While state officials are emphatic that a new test will be in place for 2014-15, the Times’ Gradebook blog reports at least one Democratic lawmaker is calling for a testing “pause” as the state completes its transition to Common Core. Journalists should stay on top of this debate, closely track the state’s progress toward a new test—and monitor for signs of problems in the years to come.

What’s the cost?

In a separate article, the AJC’s Wayne Washington concluded it was impossible to know for sure how much moving to Common Core standards is going to cost school districts overall, since instructional material is frequently replaced in any case. But in her reporting, Vogell found that being involved in the testing consortia “has taxed state departments and the testing companies involved, and complaints have flared about cost.”

In his column for the Tallahassee Democrat, Flemming wrote that the state, by going it alone, may actually save a little bit of money, even while a testing company—most likely education behemoth Pearson—picks up another job.

Once the contract is handed out, reporters should check to see if that pans out. And any calculation of state spending should account for what Florida spent as part of the consortium until last week. Has that money now been wasted?

Education policy coverage is complex and it’s often difficult to bring it down to the classroom level. But tackling these questions will help Florida parents and taxpayers better understand what Scott and the state government is doing.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , , , , , , , , ,