Florida education officials on Tuesday tried to end a long-simmering debate over what its school standards should be and how schools should be graded.
The State Board of Education unanimously adopted a handful of changes to the "Common Core State Standards" that came in the wake of a political backlash, particularly from conservatives and Republicans. Proponents say that standards were weakened in some states in response to No Child Left Behind, which penalized schools where one or more groups of students did not make adequate yearly progress, as measured by graduation rates, test scores and other factors.
The state board also heard a presentation from Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on an upcoming overhaul the state's signature A-to-F school grading system that was put in place 15 years ago by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
The changes to the Common Core standards weren't major. In Florida changes include 13 clarifications in English language arts, including adding cursive writing as a requirement for students in the second through fifth grades. Kindergarten and first-grade students would be also required to "identify" an author with prompting and support, as opposed to simply "name" the author of a text. Still board member Andy Tuck said he believes they will eventually make Florida a role model.
"I think because of the development of these standards we will have states over the country trying to implement our standards," Tuck said.
The benchmarks for learning language arts and math were adopted by Florida in 2010 and have been approved by more than 40 other states. The standards were developed by a coalition of state leaders and establish what a student should know to be prepared for college and the workforce.
In Florida and elsewhere, the standards have been criticized as being part of a federal intrusion into state education.
"Instead of listening to teachers, administrators, school districts, school boards and parents, the state is proposing minor cosmetic changes that don't address the real concerns of everyone involved in public education," Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said in a statement.
In response, Gov. Rick Scott ordered hearings on the standards. The state fielded more than 19,000 comments from teachers, parents and others. The result was 99 proposed changes, including 37 clarifications to the current standards, 60 new standards, 52 of which are for calculus, and two deletions.
In regard to the new statewide assessment and grading system, Stewart said she remains "on track" to make a decision in March. It will replace its existing tests which are primarily known as the FCAT.
Those changes would go into effect next school year.
Stewart's plan removes items that automatically cause a school's grade to drop. The plan also eliminates SAT scores and certain graduation rates from the complex formula used to evaluate high schools.
"We think it is truth in advertising," Stewart said of the plan. "We aren't giving a false impression of how our kids are performing."
Nearly half of Florida's high schools received an A grade for the past school year, amid an ongoing debate over the accuracy and complexity of the grading formula.
The grades for high schools are based on test scores, graduation rates and college readiness. Schools receive points based on how many students take college-level courses and how they score on tests such as the SAT.
Prior to Tuesday's vote on Common Core, the board heard additional public comments from about 80 people. The commenters were almost entirely in opposition with several criticizing it as a "one size fits all" federally-mandated approach to education.
Others asked that the board at the least consider postponing its implementation, as has been proposed in a House Bill 25, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Mayfield.
When some commenters' remarks drew rounds of applause from the assembled audience of parents and educators - against ground rules established at the outset - board chair Gary Chartrand became agitated and threatened to cut off further speakers.
Public comments did continue, but not without more sporadic applause and back-and-forth between Chartrand and audience members.
There was support for the Common Core changes, however.
Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said the changes would help better prepare students for today's workforce.
"It is not the classrooms that we grew up in that will prepare them for jobs that don't even exist today," she said.