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Fla. Panel Outlines Student-Performance Standards

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In a significant step toward holding schools accountable for student performance, the Florida Board of Education last week began considering an ambitious set of standards for what students should know and be able to do.

The proposal by the Florida Commission on Education Reform and Accountability seeks to flesh out a 1991 law that when fully implemented would make the state one of the first to tie high-school graduation to the attainment of skills, rather than coursework.

The plan also would free schools from many state regulations and mandates, creating instead a system of rewards and "actions'' based on schools' progress toward the standards.

"This is going to really signal, here in our state, a major effort to foster restructuring, while at the same time point the way to higher standards,'' said Commissioner of Education Betty Castor, the co-chairman of the commission.

But Ms. Castor noted that the proposal may face resistance from some parents and educators who favor a more traditional, discipline-based system. The board is not expected to act on the recommendations until September, after a series of hearings.

Perhaps more importantly, Ms. Castor acknowledged, the state's serious fiscal crunch may put a damper on the commission's plans.

Although it does not provide a specific cost estimate, the commission's report notes that the new system would require additional funds for training of school staffs, technology, and the development of new forms of assessment.

"The timing, in many respects, is just not good,'' Ms. Castor said. "On the other hand, there aren't many alternatives. There is too much at stake.''

'A Real Change'

The 1991 law, a centerpiece of Ms. Castor's reform strategy, called for reducing state regulation of schools, while holding them accountable for student performance. (See Education Week, May 1, 1991.)

It outlined seven goals for education, which largely parallel the six national education goals set by President Bush and the nation's governors.

To implement the plan, the law also created the commission on reform and accountability. The panel, made up of educators and public officials, was charged with developing performance standards for indicating state, district, and school progress toward the goals and methods of assessing progress.

The "heart'' of the system, according to Michael C. Biance, the commission's executive director, is the student-performance standards.

Relying, in part, on the report of the U.S. Labor Department's Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, the panel outlined 10 competencies it says all students should attain.

The standards emphasize students' abilities to solve problems and use their knowledge, Mr. Biance explained.

"That's a real change from the pure-facts and minimum-skills approach we have had in the past,'' he said.

Ms. Castor pointed out, however, that the state currently lacks ways of assessing student performance on most of those competencies.

To ease the transition to the new system, she said, the commission reluctantly agreed to use existing tests until the new assessments are in place.

Incentives and Action

In addition to outlining the standards, the commission also proposed that the state and local districts award "incentives'' to schools that have demonstrated progress on meeting the standards. The panel recommended against financial rewards, however, for such schools.

It also proposed that schools that are not making adequate progress be required to develop improvement plans, and that those that have not improved after three years be subject to state action.

Ms. Castor stressed that the panel's report represents interim recommendations that could be changed after the hearings.

"There's going to be, realistically, some resistance,'' she said. "Everybody is not on board.''

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