Fla. school chief says no delay in new standards

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida shouldn't delay new academic standards it's sharing with 44 other states or a related test despite looming obstacles, the state's schools chief said Wednesday at an education summit sponsored by business interests.

Other participants at the meeting in Orlando, though, said they were worried Florida was moving too fast by attempting to fully implement the standards in the 2014-15 school year.

Education Commissioner Tony Bennett last week told the State Board of Education he was developing a "Plan B" in case the test designed to assess the new standards isn't ready in time. The test being developed by a 23-state consortium will replace the existing Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

Bennett keynoted Wednesday's summit, titled "Breaking Through Mediocrity — Implementing the Common Core State Standards," by saying there's no need to delay either the standards or the test although he acknowledged potential problems.

"We're all best served by doing what many people in business do every day and that is set a timeline, set a deadline and bust our tails to meet it," Bennett said. "That's the option we're going to work for."

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said during a subsequent panel discussion that the statewide teachers' union supports the new standards but is worried they're being implemented too quickly.

He said it may take more time and money to properly train teachers but agreed the new standards would be transformative. They'll require critical thinking and problem solving rather than simply learning information, are keyed to international education standards and intended to make sure students are ready for college or work.

"The most pressing danger that we have, that could derail what we're trying to do, is an unrealistic expectation of the time it needs to get done," state Sen. Bill Montford said.

The Tallahassee Democrat, who's also CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said many districts lack the technology to implement the computer-based tests.

Another panelist, Mary Laura Bragg, national director of policy and implementation for former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, sided with Bennett, a Republican who was hired in Florida after Indiana voters last year ousted him as that state's elected schools chief.

Bragg, who directed Bush's statewide literacy initiative when he was governor, recalled similar resistance to implementing a key part of his school accountability initiatives in 2003 — a requirement that third graders pass the reading portion of the FCAT to be promoted to fourth grade.

"It seemed an insurmountable challenge, but it had to be done," Bragg said. "If we had delayed, it would have been another year of third graders who were passed on knowing that the majority of them would be unsuccessful."

Bennett acknowledged potential problems with the new test "are very real issues, not concerns." One of those is the technology gap. The Board of Education is seeking nearly $500 million for technology improvements, but Gov. Rick Scott has asked the Legislature for only $100 million.

Another difficulty will be getting each education chief from all participating states to agree on minimums needed to pass the new test that are known as "cut scores."

"It may be politically disastrous for that state chief to say I agree with that level of cut score because that state chief could end up setting a cut sore that would result in only 30 percent or 20 percent of their kids being proficient," Bennett said.

Cost is another factor because some states currently spend very little on testing while others such as Florida spend large amounts.

The summit was hosted by the Florida Council of 100, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for a Competitive Workforce, the National Chamber Foundation, Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation and AT&T.

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