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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Florida spending less on, expecting more from, education

From the Orlando Sentinel's editorial board

Florida has made extensive changes to boost academic rigor in public schools and buff its national reputation, but benchmarks such as the National Assessment of Education Progress show that Florida's still eating the dust of pacesetters like Massachusetts. So state officials are wise to propose raising the bar for passing the state's overhauled Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT 2.0.

It's a proposal that new state Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson rightly declares "represent(s) the next great step in our journey to create a model education system for the nation." But it's a journey doomed for frustration — if the Legislature doesn't provide adequate traveling money.

The FCAT helps guide decisions on student promotion, course assignment and graduation. Last month a panel led by Florida school superintendents, including Orange County's Ron Blocker, and also composed of education and civic group members, reviewed recommendations from an educators' panel to raise passing scores for the test. The superintendent-led group pushed the bar a few points higher.

The panel also tweaked the scoring system to even up the percentages of students passing the test from grade to grade. Currently, students in earlier grades do better on the test than high schoolers.

The State Board of Education could OK the plan in December. And it should. Changes would take effect next year.

Increased rigor will help Florida compete both on the national and global stage. But educators rightly worry about the fallout.

Last year, 16 percent of third-graders couldn't manage a passing score on the FCAT reading test. The proposed scoring would have raised that to 18 percent, meaning an additional 36,400 students in jeopardy of repeating third grade. That would create a need for more teachers and classrooms to re-teach the holdovers.

Not to mention a burning need for struggling kids to receive intensive reading and math coaching — largely a memory after years of deep budget cuts.

If, as Gov. Rick Scott insists, Florida's future depends on "world-class schools," ratcheting up academic rigor is the right thing to do. Now, lawmakers need to do right by schools.

With yet another multibillion-dollar deficit looming, expecting the Legislature to beef up school spending may be tilting at windmills. But maintaining level funding shouldn't be a quixotic expectation.

Blocker got it right when he told the Sentinel that educators are "willing to do the job, but legislators need to put some grease behind it and make it work.",0,4354988.story

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