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Student learning soars in Florida school embracing high standards and testing

• Kate Wallace

Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School of the Arts, a K-6 Educational Program Opportunity School in Brevard County, Fla., serves grades K-6 and emphasizes every aspect of the arts, including visual arts and performing arts.

Nestled near Cape Canaveral and Florida’s Space Coast, Stevenson attracts students with an interest in the arts from all across Brevard County. It also happens to be one of the highest performing elementary schools in the state.

Principal Corneau with students_captionedPrincipal Michael Corneau, a seasoned educator of 33 years, takes pride in his school’s high achievement and says Florida public education has come a long way since he moved to the area from New England in 1996.

Vast changes took place in Florida’s K-12 education system in 1999, when it implemented statewide testing. This, in turn, increased the level of accountability and increased focus on meeting students’ academic needs—especially the needs of struggling students. Those changes forever impacted Corneau’s approach to teaching and learning.

“The FCAT brought real accountability and drove instruction,” Corneau said. “It empowered us as educators to use student performance data to reflect on our practice, inform professional development, identify school-wide performance trends, and then refine our approaches accordingly.”

Crackers to learn area_with captionCorneau added that statewide testing also introduced much-needed standardization to public education. “By examining and teaching to standards, and from there participating in standardized assessments, educators can determine where a student’s performance lies in reference to state standards and in comparison to grade level peers,” he said.

Twenty-five year educator Tracey Hertzog, a fifth grade teacher at Stevenson, said when it comes to testing, parents and adults may inadvertently create anxiety.

“People pass on anti-testing biases to their children,” she said. “They assume their kids will test poorly if they did, but that’s wrong. If we teach kids what they need to know and what to expect on these tests, there’s nothing to worry about,” Hertzog added.

Hertzog said she left her private school classroom for public school once she saw accountability was taking hold in Florida’s K-12 system.

“I like accountability, and it’s why I made the jump,” said Hertzog. “Test data helps me understand my students’ thinking, and it drives my instruction. I’ve seen struggling students make a complete turnaround because of it.”

More than 16 years later, Florida has adopted tougher academic expectations and assessments in the Florida Standards and the accompanying Florida Standards Assessment (FSA). While many educators are quick to bash Florida’s approach to testing and accountability, Corneau and his staff of teacher leaders have taken on a different approach. Emphasis is not on “the test,” but on student learning.

Cindy Vanderpool, an assistant principal at Stevenson and an educator with 26 years of experience, said because of Corneau’s leadership, teachers, students and staff have a strong focus on student learning.

“Mr. Corneau insists on having a positive culture of growth and learning, rather than one built on the fear of failure,” said Vanderpool. “He also puts the necessary systems in place to help all teachers and their students succeed.”

Those systems, Vanderpool said, included teachers collaborating across all grades on curricular and instructional plans, using data and peer feedback to drive professional development, holding all students to high expectations, and providing training to parents to help them to understand the depth and breadth of the standards.

Several years ago, with parent training in mind, Corneau and his staff hosted a Saturday morning mock-writing session on campus to help students and parents understand the academic expectations of writing.  Students were given writing prompts and non-fiction texts, and parents sat next to their students while they worked. Once completed, students read their final products aloud to their parents.

Students in classroom_with captionCorneau said once parents saw how capable their students were, most of their questions and concerns about testing subsided.

“They were impressed with their child’s confidence,” said Corneau. “They could see the level of learning taking place and saw the tests were not there to punish kids, but to help kids understand the processes of their own learning and how they were doing,” Corneau said.

Stacey O’Connor, a former literacy coach and Stevenson’s media specialist, said Florida’s new standards are fewer in number but require deeper mastery, and come test day, students feel prepared.

“Before there were too many standards and I had to worry more about getting to each of them rather than ensuring my students mastered them,” said O’Connor. “Now that the standards are fewer but deeper, we have more time to focus on the standard at a conceptual level, ensuring understanding before we move on to something else.”

O’Connor said Stevenson teachers have moved away from scripted curriculum guides to building engaging, multi-discipline lessons with problem-based learning which includes authentic experiences. This approach positively impacts student achievement and helps students meet Florida’s higher standards.

“Instead of doing workbooks and test drills, our students are able to study things that interest and engage them. Our lessons are standards-focused.”

Angie Schoon, a fourth grade teacher, said while Florida’s computer-based assessments provide some unique challenges, “students have greater connections to digital experiences; therefore, the new challenges introduced to the testing landscape can be overcome.”

O’ Conner also added, “It’s easier to say why it won’t work, rather than embrace it. When you give change a chance, it will work for you.”

“Educators like having direction,” Corneau concluded. “Standardized tests and accountability have given us that, and this ultimately helps students reach their full potential.”

About the author

Kate Wallace @kstreetfla

Kate serves as the Director of Community Engagement (North Florida) for the Foundation for Florida's Future (AFloridaPromise). Prior to joining AFloridaPromise, Kate served as Legislative Coordinator for The Fiorentino Group, a Florida government affairs firm based in Jacksonville. Previously, Kate served as government affairs assistant for the Washington office of Triadvocates, an Arizona government relations firm, and as staff assistant for the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., federal government relations office. As a college student, Kate interned for the White House in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of Domestic Policy and for former Florida Congressman Adam Putnam’s Capitol Hill office. A central Florida native, Kate graduated from University of Florida in 2007 with a B.S. in Public Relations. Contact Kate at