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Toni Jennings: Expecting More of Schools and Students in Florida

• ExcelinEd

By: Toni Jennings

This will be a pivotal year in Florida education as the state fully incorporates the Florida Standards into the classroom.

Expecting More of Schools and Students in Florida

The higher expectations present a formidable challenge for administrators, teachers, students and parents. The new assessments that will accompany the standards go beyond a simple multiple choice format to measure students’ depth of knowledge. Students not only will have to provide answers, but also demonstrate how they arrived at them.

This academic upgrade is the next step in a journey Florida began 15 years ago with the A+ Plan for Education.  This reform effort has reversed decades of decline in our schools and now serves as a national model for raising student achievement.

We have learned during this process that high standards accomplish little if not accompanied by accountability measures to ensure they are met. This is why Florida’s A-F school grading system is so effective. It is the simplest, most transparent way to inform parents and the public about the quality of individual schools.

Florida’s grading formula largely is based on how many students are performing at grade level in reading and math, and how many are making meaningful progress toward that goal. This prioritizes the learning of every child, even the disadvantaged students who previously fell through the cracks by the thousands, year after year after year.

Prior to accountability reforms, about 70 percent of minority and low-income fourth graders in Florida were functionally illiterate. We haven’t cut that rate enough but have made significant progress, establishing Florida as one of the nation’s leaders in closing the achievement gap.

There is concern that school grades will drop because of the higher demands accompanying the Florida Standards. And they probably will drop, just as they have every time we have increased standards in the past. But what we have seen is that the grades rebound as schools and students adapt to the increased expectations.

Some proposed that grading be suspended, which would be a mistake. Instead, Florida is compromising. The grades still will be issued, and schools that do well will receive recognition funds. But there will be no sanctions accompanying poor grades in the upcoming school year.

This balances the need for accountability with the challenge of transition to the Florida Standards.

Florida schools are performing at their highest level in history. Our fourth graders have advanced two grade levels in reading since 1998, our graduation rate has increased more than 25 percent despite more rigorous graduation requirements and we have become one of the nation’s leaders in the percent of high school graduates who have passed an AP exam.

These advances have come despite what would be considered more challenging student demographics. We have a minority-majority student population with a large number of English-language learners. The number of students in the free-or-reduced price lunch program is approaching 60 percent.

These children continue to improve because we expect them to improve. We believe in equality of education by holding all students to the same high standards.

The Florida Standards, new assessments and a strong school accountability system will play an essential role in furthering Florida’s progress. Because we accept these changes and challenges, our students will graduate high school better prepared for college, a career or military service.

This year will be a monumental one on our journey to becoming the top education state in the nation. It wasn’t that long ago that such a notion would have been laughable at best.

That’s what happens when you prioritize the academic success of children over all other considerations.

Toni Jennings, a former fifth grade teacher, served as Florida’s Lieutenant Governor and two-term Senate President. She is on the Foundation for Florida’s Future Board of Directors. 

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