This is one of those grade-school math problems about fractions:
Isabel lives 3/4 mile from school. Janet lives 2/3 mile from school. How much farther, in miles, does Isabel live from school than Janet?
Is there anything wrong or worrisome about this 5th-grade-level math question?
For parents, kids, teachers, state education officials, politicians and the governor of Florida, the answer ranges from yes, no, or maybe in what has become the confusing, controversial and political world of academic standards and state testing.
The fraction question is based on key standards that students need to know to graduate from high school and move on to college and careers, and fraction questions typically show up on crucial state exams.
Now, Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to abolish what’s called the Common Core State Standards, the broad math and reading guidelines that have been praised and reviled across the country for myriad reasons. The nationwide initiative is approaching one decade old.
Late last month, DeSantis issued an executive order that commits to eliminating Common Core, setting the stage for what could be a time-consuming and pricey overhaul that may or may not produce better academic standards and better state exams for Florida’s schoolchildren.
DeSantis’s order requires the Commissioner of Education to do a comprehensive review of the state’s K-12 academic standards and recommend revisions to the governor by Jan. 1, 2020.
The goal is to “provide a roadmap to make Florida’s standards number one in the nation,” according to the order. Other recommendations include innovative ways to “streamline testing” — presumably shortening the length or number of state exams kids are required to take or even creating new exams.
“It is a huge undertaking and it’s going to be expensive, and I don’t quite understand it,” says Angie Gallo, the Florida PTA vice president for educational development.
What if Common Core already is the best set of standards?
The Florida PTA supported Common Core standards both nationally and in Florida, according to Gallo. “The standards were vetted by a lot of different people and experts in the field,” she says. “They aren’t a bad set of standards.”
Where did Common Core come from in the first place?
The standards date to 2007, when governors and education commissioners were pushing to develop rigorous academic standards, common across states, that would require critical thinking and problem-solving rather than memorization to ensure kids would be ready for college, careers and life.
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers were instrumental in the effort; the federal government’s U.S. Department of Education did not write the standards.
The Common Core standards were released in 2010, according to a timeline posted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
By late 2013, 45 states plus territories, including Florida in 2010, had adopted the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts and literacy, and those standards would be used to give state exams.
Under federal education law, states must test students in grades 3 to 8 in both math and reading, and at least once in 9th to 12th grade.
With a common set of academic standards, Florida and dozens of other states would be able to compare how students fared on state exams based on the standards – which some states might have disliked.
Florida planned to administer tough, Common-Core based state exams in math and reading called PARCC, which stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. States also use a Common-Core based exam called Smarter Balanced.
But Florida’s plans fell through when controversy began brewing over Common Core and state testing. In 2013-14, then-Gov. Rick Scott directed the State Department of Education to get rid of PARCC, citing federal intrusion into the state’s education sphere.
Scott said Common Core had come to mean “an effort to institute federal control of the policy decisions of state and local governments,” according to a letter sent to the State Board of Education.
“I support Florida’s high academic standards and strongly reject overreach into those standards and other areas of our education system by the federal government, including state assessments, curriculum and instructional materials,” Scott wrote.
Florida ditched PARCC in favor of new exams with new titles, and Scott signed legislation in 2014 to eliminate all references to the Common Core standards in Florida law, according to the governor’s office.
But, in fact, Common Core didn’t go away, according to new Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
Corcoran recently acknowledged that, “We’ve been stuck … for a long time now with Common Core” and that the state essentially merely rebranded its academic standards.
Florida’s academic standards are posted online, and the standards indeed look like Common Core.
In 5th grade math, for example, a Florida standard is described as Number and Operations – Fractions. “Use equivalent fractions as a strategy to add and subtract fractions.”
On the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, the 5th grade standard says: Number & Operations – Fractions. “Use equivalent fractions as a strategy to add and subtract fractions.”
DeSantis’s executive order describes Florida’s academic standards as “Common Core (Florida Standards).”
Other controversy over Common Core
Allegations of federal intrusion weren’t the only concerns about Common Core.
Some parents couldn’t understand the new math standards. “It was almost to the point that parents couldn’t help their kids with their homework,” said Gallo, of the Florida PTA, who said she heard from such parents about the issue.
Nationally, the changes in reading for kids – a new focus on non-fiction material compared to fiction — took getting used to for parents and kids alike.
Many educators and students found the Common Core-based exams more lengthy and difficult compared with previous state exams, and some parents rebelled, keeping their kids out of school on testing days.
In addition, test results were often dismal, especially in the early years of Common Core-based state exams.
But several states are still using the Common Core standards and exams based on those standards.
For example, 12 states (HI, WA, OR, CA, NV, ID, MT, SD, MI, CT, DE, VT) plus the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bureau of Indian Education still use the Common-Core based Smarter Balanced exams, according to a spokesman for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.
As for PARCC, that consortium was disbanded, though Common Core-based test questions are still used. For example, four states and Washington D.C. schools are giving exams comprised of 100 percent PARCC questions, and two states are using some PARCC test questions for exams, according to a tally by Education Week.
Eliminating Common Core standards will require a replacement of such high quality that Florida standards would be “number one in the nation,” according to DeSantis’s executive order.
The order makes clear that Education Commissioner Corcoran will need help and will have to consult with “relevant stakeholders,” including parents and teachers.
The Florida PTA said in a statement, “We look forward to working with Governor DeSantis, Commissioner Corcoran, and other stakeholders to ensure parents and educators are given an active role in the process of developing new standards that are fully vetted to support student achievement.’’
The Florida Education Association, which represents teachers, school staff workers and others, also favors bringing parents and teachers to the table in reshaping standards, and the union supports streamlining state testing.
“Parents and our members cite time spent on testing — as versus on genuine teaching and learning — as one of their top concerns. If all stakeholders are heard, we have confidence that this effort can improve public education in Florida,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram.
Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for FairTest, an organization that works to end the misuse of standardized testing, describes Common Core as a “top-down set of standards.”
But those standards challenged the status quo. “The Common Core State Standards were very different and that produced blowback,” Schaeffer says.
Still, “Many teachers thought it (Common Core) was more coherent in many ways than the existing hodgepodge of standards used previously.”
As to replacing Common Core with another set of standards, Schaeffer isn’t sure what will happen, but he knows this: “Testing is a political issue, not an education one, primarily,” he says.
Regarding the 5th grade fraction question about Isabel and Janet — taken from Common Core practice math questions — The answer is 1/12 mile.
The answer stems from a Common Core standard on adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators.