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MIAMI—The pushback against the testing component of Common Core here has endangered political support for the controversial national curriculum standards in a linchpin state. But it also has left Florida’s public school teachers in an uncomfortable limbo: Officials expect them to start teaching the new standards over the next year, yet educators remain unsure when, and how, their students will be tested on them.
At issue is Florida’s participation in a multi-state consortium, known as PARCC, working to develop online standardized tests to be aligned with the standards. Several states expect to start administering the PARCC in the winter of 2015. But in late September, Florida Gov. Rick Scott directed the state Education Board to withdraw from PARCC and instead select a new assessment through a competitive bidding process.
“If the test were settled, people would see more of a sense of urgency,” said Kathy Pham, a veteran Miami English teacher who now works full-time as a “peer reviewer” (essentially a mentor) for Miami-Dade Schools. She supports the Common Core in theory, but worries teachers will have to scramble at the last minute to prepare students for a new, and largely unknown, test.
Scott is not the first Florida politician to raise concerns about PARCC. In July, Florida state legislative leaders sent a letter to then-Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett requesting that the state exit the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) consortium and develop its own tests for Common Core. PARCC is one of two multi-state coalitions that won federal money in 2010 to develop tests aligned with new standards.
In their letter to Bennett, Senate President Don Gaetz and House of Representatives Speaker Will Weatherford cited concerns about the cost, quality and amount of testing required under PARCC. “We cannot jeopardize fifteen years of education accountability reform by relying on PARCC to define a fundamental component of our accountability system,” they wrote.
Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Indiana, Pennsylvania and North Dakota have already withdrawn from PARCC, electing to make their own assessments. Florida has been a leader in PARCC from the beginning and is the fiscal agent for the group, controlling the contracts. At the governor’s behest, the state will end that role by the end of the year.
“More Northern questions?”
While lawmakers worry about the cost of PARCC, and whether it constitutes a violation of Florida’s autonomy, teachers worry about the new test’s content.
At Miami Carol City Senior High School, teachers Alexandria Martin and Nichole Dino said in early September that they knew little about the political battle brewing over PARCC’s future in Florida. They have never seen any sample questions and have little sense how the exam will vary from the current state standardized test, known as the FCAT.
The teachers say their students sometimes struggled on the FCAT because its creators knew little about the cultural and geographic context the children live in. One old question, for instance, expected students to identify a “moccasin” as a type of shoe, but most students growing up in southern Florida know a moccasin only as a type of snake in the Everglades.
Martin and Dino worry such cultural gaps could be even worse on the PARCC since students in states across the country will take it.
“Is it going to be biased and have more Northern questions?” says Martin.
Regardless of how the political battle ends, Dino says asking teachers to teach new standards without any idea how their students will be assessed is like asking “me to run the 200-meter in track when you haven’t finished laying down the track and you want me to run with no shoes.”
Although Scott’s push to sever ties with PARCC does not mean the state is officially out of the consortium (technically the state board of education chief and state superintendent must also approve the withdrawal) it makes Florida’s participation highly unlikely.
Gaetz thinks Florida is capable of creating its own tests aligned with Common Core. “I would hope that the assessments of the kind that we have developed and used for more than a decade could be improved upon,” he says. Gaetz has suggested adapting tests like the SAT and the ACT, as well as looking at what other states have created. Both Kentucky and New York have developed Common Core-aligned exams independent of a national consortium.
But proponents of PARCC argue that having a common test will allow Florida to more accurately gauge its performance.
Chris Kirchner, an English teacher at Miami’s Coral Reef Senior High School, hopes Florida officials forge ahead with PARCC so that the state will have a better sense of how its students rate academically compared to their peers in other states. But, like many of her colleagues, Kirchner is concerned that teachers have seen few—if any—sample test questions yet.
“I don’t know where I’m going because I have not seen where my kids are supposed to be going,” she says. “Teachers…need three or four years before they are held accountable to the results of a new test. You cannot just whip a horse to go faster.”