Fla. schools summit kicks off amid distrust

Associated PressAugust 27, 2013 

CLEARWATER -- Teachers, school officials, politicians and other education leaders on Monday kicked off a three-day summit in hopes of reaching a consensus on the next round of changes for Florida's public schools.

It was clear even from the beginning that there remains a wide gulf -- and even some distrust -- about what changes should be made to the state's education standards and its well-known A-to-F school grading system.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott called for the hastily arranged summit following a summer that included the abrupt resignation of Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and a backlash over the state's

current grading system. It comes nearly a year after the Republican governor embarked on a "listening" tour where he personally visited schools.

The summit also comes when the state is the middle of a huge transition to a new set of standards - and potentially a new high-stakes test to replace the current Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart repeatedly said that the summit was an opportunity for state officials to listen to others involved in education and create a plan for the future.

"I think we are focused on moving the bar forward," Stewart said. "There are some things that we want to take a closer look at and make sure that we are on the right track."

But Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said that state officials need to fix problems with the state's current system of ranking and evaluating schools before they move to new standards.

"We need to recognize at some point this became a runaway train that needs to get back on track," Carvalho said. "I think at this point there's a great deal of skepticism across the state as to what the validity and reliability of our accountability system really is. And we have an opportunity to fix it. If not fixed, I don't know how we can usher in a new era of standards."

Florida has had testing for years, but it used the FCAT as the foundation for the A-to-F grading system pushed into law by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. But over the years the criteria used to grade schools has changed as new requirements have kicked in. The flurry of changes has drawn concerns from school superintendents. Teachers are also concerned that about a new evaluation system that will be linked to testing.

Shortly before he stepped down this summer Bennett persuaded the State Board of Education to adopt a "safety net" provision that limited a school grade from dropping more than one letter at a time. The move helped more than 150 schools from avoiding an "F" grade but it led to criticism that the grades were misleading.

Bennett then resigned after it was reported that his staff in Indiana changed that state's school grading formula to benefit a top Republican donor's charter school.

Bennett's departure, however, left the state without one of its most ardent champions of Common Core State Standards. The standards are taking effect this year, but students won't be tested on them until next year.

The standards have drawn fire especially from some conservatives who view them as taking away local control.

He also left shortly before he was due to make a decision on whether Florida should participate in a national testing consortium that is developing a test for the new standards.

Legislative leaders, expressing concerns about the costs and time needed for the new test, want Florida to pull out of the consortium.

Stewart said Monday that while there is an urgency to make a decision on the test she insisted there was no timeline on that decision.

But discussion about the national test sparked grumbling when summit organizers suggested it was too expensive and would take too much student time. That led some of the participants to complain that it sounded like a decision had been already made.

Stewart, however, insisted that remaining with the national test was still an option for Florida.

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