Perilous Times- Part I

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A series on significant changes to public school education

By Ryan Butler

When talking about changes in education, Levy County School Superintendent Robert Hastings likes to bring up a story from his time as a long-jumper at Bronson High School. For the event, Hastings would run up to the edge of the pit, accelerate into the air and land as deep into the pit of sand that served as a landing pad as he could. The coach made sure he did. During practice, he put a folding chair in the pit. After each successful jump, the coach put the chair further away. Eventually, Hastings says, he became scared to scrape his shins against a chair that had been moved too far away. 

Federal and state administrators say new mandates for increased testing, academic rigor and staff accountability will make students jump further. 

“We believe in getting better and measuring in athletics but not so much in education,” said Florida Department of Education Chancellor Pam Stewart, the state’s No. 2 educator. “We haven’t changed much in education in 10 years. This has given a sense of complacency.”

Hastings, as well as many other state and local officials, believes these changes have gone too far and will leave students with something much worse than scraped shins.  


Regardless of where educators stand on the issue, both sides understand just how drastic, and at times, daunting, these changes will be. 

“The last 14 months in education have been the biggest change of my teaching career,” said Stewart, a 31-year veteran of Florida schools. 

The most dramatic changes include:

• The creation of End of Course Exams (EOCs) for every class in Florida. These will phase into becoming prerequisites for graduation

• Graduation requirements to pass a chemistry or physics EOC in order to complete high school

• A new system for teacher evaluation. In the new system, 50 percent of teachers’ evaluation results will come from students’ test scores

• One-year contracts for all future teachers, which began July 1, 2011

• A new principal evaluation system based, in part, on  student and teacher performance

• A new, significantly more rigorous and difficult curriculum, being adopted by most states. 

• A dramatic increase in cutoff scores, and difficulty, for the FCAT exams. 

• A phased-in approach of different requirements for different graduating cohorts, culminating in 2016-2017

These requirements stand in addition to FCAT testing as well as the college-readiness test. Along with other tests including the EOCs, Hastings has said students will be required to spend 71 of their last 90 days in standardized testing. 

“We are overburdened by testing,” Hastings said, “Our schools are becoming testing and remediation centers.” 

In addition, Florida schools will now align themselves with the much more difficult federal evaluation rate. 

As compared to the previous system, Florida’s 2010-2011 graduation rate was, on average, 10 percent higher than the federal evaluation. 

In Levy County, the Class of 2011 would have graduated only 61 percent of its students, instead of the 73 percent that received a diploma.

These drastic declines in graduation rates are an additional fear for educators statewide.

Among the biggest fears is these changes’ impact on the all-important school grades. Lower scores on FCAT exams would in turn lower the school grades. Much of a school’s grade is determined by improvement among the lowest 25 percent, but new changes narrow this group and make improvement more difficult. Changes implemented in grades for all elementary, middle and high schools for the 2011-2012 school year include:

• All students are subject to new, higher achievement level cut scores for FCAT reading and math, as well as a requirement to pass the algebra 1 EOC in order to earn credit for the course and to graduate

• Students with disabilities learning gains are counted in the same manner as students without disabilities are for scoring purposes

• English language learners in their second year are counted in the same way students fluent in English are

• Level 1 students, those who are the lowest achieving,  have to score two points beyond a year’s expected growth. Previously they only had to improve by one point

-Level 3 students (satisfactory) can no longer be included in the bottom 25 percentile. This dramatically impacts high-achieving schools with many level 3 or higher students. 

-Students who didn’t pass a grade will count as members of their original academic cohort’s bottom 25 percent. 

-Students who move into level 4 or level 5 (high achieving) will add “bonus points” to a school grade. This is an incentive to get low performing student at high levels and will provide an asset to school grades 

These changes are projected to lower grades, which would subsequently strip schools of funding. This could label them with a proverbial “scarlet letter”- a D or F school has stigma that can scare away transfers and makes it easier for current students to leave, further reducing funding. School grades for the past year have not been released by the DOE but local officials are worried these scores could usher in the first wave of a period of drastically declining results. Hastings said there were 181 D or F schools in Florida last year and estimates this number could increase to 493. In May 2012, the State DOE did make an adjustment to soften the blows of the changes. For one year only, schools will not be able to fall beyond one letter grade. 

Still, disconcerting public school officials further is the proposed Amendment 8, which will appear on the Florida electoral ballot on Nov. 6. It would remove the “No-Aid” provision of the state constitution that prohibits the use of public funds to subsidize religious groups or individuals. In the past, this clause allowed courts to declare Florida school voucher programs unconstitutional. With that passage removed, it would reopen the possibility of voucher programs. These in turn would allow students to leave public schools and take with them “a voucher” to go to a different one. Each departed student would, in essence, be taking tax-payer given, public school money and given the opportunity to give it to a private or charter school. All this has left public school leaders frustrated. 

“(The changes are meant) to punish public education. It’s meant to punish schools and tell them they’re a bunch of failures,” Hastings said at the Levy County School Board meeting on May 20th, 2012.  “We’re proud of our public education system. If we don’t do that, we’ll see public education destroyed in Florida.”

This year’s F-CAT writing scores proved a dramatic manifestation of county officials’ current fears. For the tougher 2012 tests, only 27 percent of fourth grade students recorded a 4.0 or higher on the 6.0 scale, compared to 81 percent from the year before. Similar results came back for middle and high school students. The test became more difficult when, for the first time ever, students were penalized for mistakes in punctuation, spelling and grammar. In addition, an extra emphasis was placed on using details in supporting evidence for their writing samples. Many teachers had not adjusted students to the changes. The State Board of Education called for an emergency meeting after the results were released and changed the scores.

“We are asking more from our students and teachers than we ever have. I believe it is appropriate to expect that our students know how to spell and properly punctuate a sentence,” Florida DOE commissioner, and No. 1 state education official, Gerard Robinson said in a released statement. “Before this year, those basics were not given enough attention, nor did we give enough attention to communicating these basic expectations to our teachers.”

But other results have not brought about some of the fears from county administrators. F-CAT scores for 2011-2012 were mostly consistent with 2010-2011 scores. In several cases there were slight increases. In the first year of Algebra EOCs determining if a student passed or failed the class for the year, nearly 90 percent of middle school students passed.  Chiefland Middle School and Williston Middle School posted 98 percent and 100 percent pass rates, respectively. 

“As the state continues to raise academic standards, the Florida Department of Education released results today showing that Florida students appear to be up to the challenge in algebra,” said a statement from the DOE. 

Curriculum and Standards

“I don’t know if curriculum and teacher quality have spent much time together but they are now,” Stewart said. “If we go about this in the same way we’re not preparing kids.”

Last year marked the first step of the transition into the new standards. For the next five school years following the most recent one, students entering ninth grade will be subject to a different set of standards, and graduation requirements, then the cohort before them. Teachers staying in the same grade level will have to learn a new set of rules for four of the next five years. 

Following below are the changes. The school years in bold indicate the year a ninth grader enters high school. 


2010-2011: Students’ new algebra 1 EOC counts for 30 percent of a student’s grade. Students need to pass geometry course

2011-2012 (most recent school year): Algebra 1 EOC becomes the deciding factor in passing the class. Geometry EOC is 30 percent of a student’s grade and they need to pass biology course, with 30 percent of course grade coming down to EOC

2012-2013: Passing scores for both geometry and biology EOCs needed for course credit. Student has to earn algebra II credit

2013-2014: In addition to passing algebra I, geometry and biology EOCs, student needs to pass either chemistry or physics. They will also need to take an additional science class of equal rigor to chemistry or physics

2014-2015: Same requirements as 2013-2014

2015-2016: Same requirements as 2014-2015 for high school, but middle school students will now need to pass civics in order to advance to ninth grade. The civics EOC counts as 30 percent of final civics grade

2016-2017: Same as 2016-2017, with passing middle school civics EOC in order to go to ninth grade


 Standards are also getting a dramatic overhaul. 

“It’s a huge shift from NGSSS to Common Core,” Stewart said.  “Common Core is about facilitation of learning and getting kids to think for themselves. This produces more life-long learners”.  

Much of the emphasis is shifting toward more informational, fact-driven texts. In documentation from the Just Read, Florida! Conference March 19, presenters explained “College and career-ready skill involve reading informational texts 100% of the time… What 11th graders were reading in the 1990s is the same as what 7th graders were reading in the 1960s.”  In explaining the Common Core, the groups behind it say “… the standards represent a synthesis of the best elements of standards-related work to date and an important advance over that previous work.”

The standards are, for the most part, more complex, and, in short, more difficult. For example: 


Sixth Grade- Reading: 

-NGSSS (current system): “The student will locate and analyze the elements of plot structure, including exposition, setting, character development, rising/falling action, conflict/resolution, and theme in a variety of fiction”

-Common core: “(Students will) cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text”; “Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution


Similar changes exist for reading, science, history and all other Common Core subjects. 

The Accountability Movement

Hastings has referred to these recent changes as “perilous times”. Many other educators, Hastings included, have referenced the past 20 years of education as the “accountability movement”- which has manifested itself most prominently as an increased emphasis on standardized testing. That philosophy helped bring about the high-profile F-CAT tests to Florida in 1998. The tests became definitive in student’s academic success and the state-assigned school grades. The importance and emphasis on the test has been criticized for years, with critics asserting that teachers put too much time on F-CAT-based skills at the expense of other academic values. Others have said teachers are now teaching test-taking sills instead of the content for the test. The results of the tests put huge pressures on both students and school officials. Students are required to pass the 10th grade level F-CAT in order to graduate. The student’s results are used to determine a school’s grade and subsequently school funding. 

The F-CAT 2.0 was created for the 2010-2011 school year. It used “Next Generation Sunshine State Standards” (NGSSS) to replace the “Sunshine State Standards” of the F-CAT. That test will soon be replaced by the Common Core Standards, the penultimate creation of the accountability movement. In the meantime, Florida students will be bouncing between different tests and different standards. 

“For the first time in the history of education 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th graders are on different requirements,” Hastings said. 

A permeating belief in the Accountability Movement is that “the American high school diploma signifies only a broken promise… (it) often serves as little more than  a certificate of attendance.” In short, the idea came about that high school graduates were no longer prepared for life after school. This has been aligned with beliefs from Achieve Inc., an organization created at the 1996 National Education Summit and a partner in developing the Common Core Standards. “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts”, a 2004 document from the American Diploma Project (ADP), which was a creation of Achieve, the Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Project, states:

-Most high school graduates (53 percent) need remedial help in college math or English course 

-Most college students never attain a degree (45 percent of students taking one remedial course and 18 percent of students taking three or more classes, including reading, finish college)

-Most employers say high school graduates lack basic skills

-Too few high school students take challenging courses

-Most high school exit exams don’t measure what matters to college and employers

The organizations’ solution was to align high school graduation standards with expectations of the “real world”. “The ADP benchmarks are ambitious. They reflect an unprecedented convergence in what employers and postsecondary faculty need from new employees and entering freshmen… ‘Ready or Not’ calls for skills and content in algebra I, algebra II, geometry, data analysis, statistics as well as “strong oral and written communication skills that are staples in college classrooms and high-performing workplaces.” These became known as the Common Core Standards. 

In June 2009, the National Governors Association with the Council of Chief State School Officers began developing the Common Core. They were designed to:

-Align with college and work expectations

-Be clear, understandable and consistent

-Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills

-Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards

-Be informed by other top performing countries

-Be grounded in research and evidence

The 70-person committee creating the standards included retired University of Florida statistics professor Richard Scheaffer and Florida DOE Deputy Chancellor Mary Jane Tappen. Part of the Core was to align difference between states, lifting all states to the most advanced current thinking in education. The universal aspect of the standards and the emphasis from the federal government has worried some that the Core creates a “national curriculum”. The drafters of the Common Core say the standards are a way to help teachers impart knowledge and skill, allowing them to determine how the standards are to be met. A survey released by Core creators reported that few respondents believed the current education system could implement these standards, further suggesting the need for dramatic change.