By Sarah Gonzalez
Listen to the companion radio report by Sarah Gonzalez of StateImpact Florida:
In Florida, a high school diploma is not the same thing as a certificate of college readiness.
About This Story
The series “13th Grade” is the result of a collaboration between the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida.
In 2011 alone, more than 30,000 students learned this the hard way. After graduating from high school or receiving a G.E.D., they went on to community or state colleges in Florida and promptly failed at least one subject on the college placement test.
That didn’t mean they couldn’t go to college, but it did mean they had to take at least one remedial class to improve their basic skills. Those students had to pay college tuition to re-learn material they should have mastered in high school.
The problem is that there is a disconnect between what’s taught at the K-12 level and the skills that students need to succeed in college. That’s been understood for a while. The research arm of the Florida legislature said as much in a report on remedial education back in 2006.
Only recently, however, have state policy makers begun making changes that aim to address the situation. The goal is to strengthen the K-12 system so that fewer students need remediation once they get to college.
Florida Ditches the FCAT
The biggest change involves scrapping the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, the test that students must pass in order to graduate high school. The exam tests only 10th-grade level skills. The state is also getting rid of its existing regime of academic standards that guide what students are expected to know in each grade level.
Starting in 2014-15, Florida will use something called the “Common Core State Standards.” Some 45 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to use this common framework, which is supposed to align what students learn in K-12 more closely with what they need to know in college.
The FCAT is being replaced with a more rigorous standardized test, called the PARCC. Florida developed the new test along with 21 other states and D.C. The other Common Core states will use a test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment. The federal government is paying to develop the new tests.
Across the state, schools are getting ready for the changeover. The Florida Department of Education is creating new course descriptions for each subject in each grade, based on the new Common Core standards. Next, schools will adopt their curricula — the lessons teachers use in their classrooms. Vendors are submitting textbooks and other teaching materials that dictate the curricula for the state to approve. The DOE will accept a few textbooks for districts to choose from, which means curriculum may vary within the state, and across other states. But the standards will all be the same.
There are some challenges ahead, though.
Some school districts don’t know how they’ll pay for all the new textbooks under Common Core. Plus, schools aren’t sure how they’ll get enough computers to administer the new test, which will be conducted solely by computer.
Jeb Bush, who made overhauling education a priority when he was Florida’s governor, is a fan of the Common Core approach. He says the new standards are set as high as those in countries that outperform the United States in academics.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are experts in the field of standards and what kids need to learn in the 21st century to be successful,” Bush told StateImpact Florida in an interview. “And what they say is that the greatest country in the face of the earth measures itself to lower standards than what the best is in the world. So I would argue that we should embark on this journey.”
The FCAT’s Replacement: PARCC
The new PARCC exam will be a good bit different from the FCAT, which Bush trumpeted while he was governor.
Critics of the FCAT say teachers, under pressure to help students achieve higher test scores, have emphasized test-taking skills over core subject lessons. They say students are taught to memorize facts and eliminate answers on multiple-choice questions.
The new exam is supposed to be more demanding. Rather than just picking the right multiple-choice answer, students will have to defend their answers. It will test English, language arts and math.
Mary Jane Tappen is in charge of preK-12 curriculum at the Florida Department of Education. In the future, she said, there will be fewer concepts for students to learn. But students will need to have a deeper understanding of the subject.
For example, students learning to divide fractions learn to multiply by the reciprocal – that’s the rule that gets you the right solution.
“But a student will have to be able to explain why that works,” Tappen said. “And a teacher is going to have to be able to instruct to show how that works.”
In the English portion of the FCAT, students are asked to read a passage and answer questions about the main idea.
“Which is fairly subjective,” Tappen said. “And now, in addition to stating the main idea, they have to provide evidence from the material they read that supports their answer. So they have to provide evidence that they truly got their answer from the passage they just read.”
Not everybody is sold on the new approach. Critics like Bob Schaffer with the National Center for Fair and Open Testing said the PARCC is just another standardized test. And it hasn’t been proven to work.
Schaeffer said standardized tests should be treated more like prescription drugs.
“In order to sell a new pharmaceutical you have to prove, in this case to a federal agency, the Food and Drug administration, that it is safe and effective,” he said.
In education, it’s the other way around. Schaffer says the new test should be tested before states decide to make it mandatory for all students.
Proponents of the PARCC argue that standards must be in place before the exam is developed, so that students are tested on what they’re supposed to be learning.
More Changes, Yet Another Test
Florida is making some other changes that may impact the remedial education problem.
This year’s high school seniors are the last class that will be able to graduate high school without taking a math class higher than Algebra 1, such as Geometry. The year after that, students won’t be able to graduate without passing a math class higher than Algebra 2.
This will force some schools to offer more math classes than they have in the past. “Some kids have not had access to higher level math courses, and now they will,” said Tappen. “And we think that’s fantastic.”
Another change involves yet another test. Community and state colleges are using a new college-readiness exam, called PERT – the postsecondary education readiness test. As of last year, high school juniors in Florida must take this test. If students pass the PERT in their junior or senior year, then they don’t have to take it when they get to a state or community college.
If they don’t pass, however, they have time to take college-readiness courses during their senior year of high school. They can brush up on their basics before they get to college, where remedial classes cost tuition and lengthen the time it takes to get a degree.
“The PERT test is a national model where we’ve aligned the college curriculum with the high school curriculum,” said Randall W. Hanna, Chancellor of the Florida College System, which includes 28 state or community colleges.
“My goals,” Hanna said, “would be that we don’t have any recent high school graduates needing to take developmental education courses in our community colleges when they come to us.”
Mary Jane Tappen agrees.
She believes a combination of testing high school students for college readiness, along with increasing graduation requirements and revamping the standards and standardized test, will help solve Florida’s remedial education problem.
“The power of those three things,” Tappen said. “We’re going to see far fewer kids walk straight from our campuses to state colleges and have to take developmental courses because they aren’t college ready.”