Set high, uni­form stu­dent stan­dards

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion -

In a glob­ally com­pet­i­tive mar­ket­place, there is still no way to know how a high school grad­u­ate in Florida stacks up against stu­dents from other states, let alone the world. That is wrong, it’s a dis­ser­vice to stu­dents, and it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that fix­ing that mis­take was why the Com­mon Core stan­dards started with such prom­ise a decade ago. Gov. Ron DeSan­tis’ re­cent ex­ec­u­tive or­der telling the ed­u­ca­tion com­mis­sioner to “ar­tic­u­late how Florida will elim­i­nate Com­mon Core (Florida Stan­dards) and en­sure we re­turn to the ba­sics of read­ing, writ­ing and arith­metic” met with cau­tious praise, a sign of just how far the prac­tice of Com­mon Core had strayed from its orig­i­nal in­tel­li­gent premise. As sup­port for Com­mon Core has col­lapsed, whether be­cause of test­ing fa­tigue or fears of govern­ment over­reach, the stan­dards them­selves mat­ter more than ever.

Iron­i­cally, the gover­nor’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der says “it is in the best in­ter­est of all Florid­i­ans to give our chil­dren a world-class ed­u­ca­tion that fully pre­pares them for col­lege and/or a ca­reer in the 21st cen­tury.” With­out com­mon stan­dards, how will that hap­pen? How would we even know? The found­ing prin­ci­ple of Com­mon Core was sim­ple: Here is what an Amer­i­can stu­dent grad­u­at­ing from any high school should know and be able to do to be com­pet­i­tive in the global econ­omy and to be a pro­duc­tive cit­i­zen. A high school diploma would be proof of that achieve­ment.

Sadly, it failed mis­er­ably. A diploma from a Mis­sis­sippi school means some­thing very dif­fer­ent than one from Mas­sachusetts or Florida. This is lit­tle help to stu­dents or the col­leges look­ing to ad­mit them or the em­ploy­ers try­ing to hire them.

When Com­mon Core be­gan, Florida was at the fore­front, and ev­ery state but Texas and Alaska took part. It was not the fed­eral govern­ment that dic­tated stan­dards but rather the Na­tional Gover­nors As­so­ci­a­tion Cen­ter for Best Prac­tices and the Coun­cil of Chief State School Of­fi­cers who led the way. They rec­og­nized that for too long, Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tion had suf­fered from a piece­meal ap­proach.

But then the Com­mon Core lost its way. The orig­i­nal idea was to set a high bar but leave it to the dis­cre­tion of states and school dis­tricts how to clear it. In other words, stu­dents would have to pass tests on cru­cial top­ics be­fore grad­u­at­ing from high school, but how to teach those top­ics would be left to lo­cal con­trol. That didn’t hap­pen. In­stead, teach­ers were told not just what stu­dents should know but were di­rected specif­i­cally how they should teach. A stu­dent might not only have to an­swer a math prob­lem cor­rectly but demon­strate the spe­cific, ap­proved way that she ar­rived at the so­lu­tion. Then, stan­dard­ized tests piled upon stan­dard­ized tests. Teach­ers lost au­ton­omy and in­struc­tion time, and over-tested stu­dents lost time to learn.

In the end, ev­ery­one lost. But the an­swer is not to throw out stan­dards that would al­low com­par­isons of high school com­pe­tence across Amer­ica. It is for states to agree on ro­bust stan­dards, then let in­di­vid­ual teach­ers have the free­dom on how to teach to reach them. Mod­els for this al­ready ex­ist, both in Ad­vanced Place­ment cour­ses (in which Florida is a suc­cess­ful leader) and in the In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate pro­grams, which have the same stan­dards for a diploma across the world. In the mean­time, we have a sys­tem where the grade­point av­er­ages of stu­dents in Hills­bor­ough, Pinel­las and Pasco coun­ties are com­puted dif­fer­ently, so col­leges have to come up with their own meth­ods of com­par­ing ap­pli­cants just from the Tampa Bay area. In fact, it’s eas­ier to com­pare IB stu­dents across the coun­ties than tra­di­tional stu­dents. That’s crazy, and it helps no one.

Florida should not hide in a pre­tend Lake Wobe­gon, where all the chil­dren are above av­er­age, even if few of them re­ally are. The right an­swer is for states to agree on rig­or­ous na­tional stan­dards and then let in­di­vid­ual teach­ers run their own class­rooms. In a world in which a Florida stu­dent might have to com­pete with a stu­dent from In­dia as well as In­di­ana or China as well as Cal­i­for­nia, any­thing less hurts the teenagers who are our fu­ture.

With­out com­mon stan­dards, how can there be mean­ing­ful com­par­isons of class­room achieve­ment across states?

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