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Test standards to focus on critical thinking
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A panel of education officials discusses the next phase of testing standards in Florida at a Village Square discussion Jan. 23 at St. Petersburg College. The new Common Core Standards go into effect during the 2014-15 school year.
SEMINOLE – The state’s top official for public schools told a gathering at St. Petersburg College Jan. 23 that a change in state testing two years from now will require teachers to focus more on instructing the skill of critical thinking.

Pam Stewart, chancellor of public schools for the Florida Department of Education, told those attending a Village Square discussion on the new Common Core Standards that teachers won’t have to teach to certain standards, such as they do now for the FCAT exam, but they will need to concentrate on a new style of approach.

“I believe if teachers use the questioning skills where it does dig deeper,” Stewart said, “they (students) will be prepared for whatever test is put in front of them.”

Stewart gave an example on reading comprehension. If a woman wears a dress to a ball, teachers should not just ask what color was the woman’s dress. Teachers should ask why the woman chose that color, Stewart said.

The idea is to make students think more freely, she said.

“Every teacher has the obligation to teach the standards,” Stewart said. “I hate the phrase teaching to the test. But if it’s important knowledge for our students to know, I think it’s important to teach it.”

She noted that panels of experts and teachers statewide determined the Sunshine State Standards for the next generation and it’s important that teachers teach to those standards.

“I think one of the problems we have is when teachers pass out those worksheets that are a drill,” Stewart said. “That’s inappropriate and doesn’t do a good job of preparing students for life, testing or anything we want to prepare students for – unless we think we’re going to send them out into the world to deal with worksheets every day.

“I think it’s important to have a clear understanding of what the standards are,” she added. “Should there be a week where you brief kids on how to take a test? Probably but nothing more. We should be driven by the standards.”

Created by teachers and educators across the country, the Common Core standards provide clear expectations for what students should be learning in each grade to prepare for college or a career.

The new standards were born from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Assessment Program, which was funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. To help meet President Barack Obama’s goal of restoring the nation’s position as the world leader in college graduates by 2020, the Race to the Top Program awarded two grants totaling $330 million for new student assessment systems.

One is the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The other is the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Florida has signed on to the PARCC assessment system. It is one 23 states and the District of Columbia that have done so. Twenty-two other states have signed on to the SMARTER system.

Both systems assess math and English language arts from third grade through high school.

The PARCC coalition will specifically test students’ ability to read, complete research projects, excel in classroom speaking and listening assignments, and work with digital media.

It also will end the single end-of-year accountability test in favor of a series of exams throughout the school year. Those assessments will be used to create a combined, single score and reduce the pressure of a single test. PARCC also will give teachers information about students’ progress throughout the year.

Florida is currently phasing in the standards.

Michael Greg, superintendent of Pinellas County Schools, said the PARCC assessments would change the way teachers teach.

“The PARCC assessment will be much more complex,” he said. “I’ve seen questions. It’s a much more higher order of thinking. We should be teaching students how to critically think.”

While some educators have criticized the concept of assessments, Grego said he likes the idea and believes without them, education would not function properly.

“The only purpose for assessments is to drive instruction,” he said. “Assessment is a wonderful tool that helps assist the heart of this profession and that’s teaching and learning. The problems we’re having are not based on FCAT or assessments. It’s what we’re doing with those assessments. So let’s take the best (of FCAT) and move and evolve from that.”

Grego said it all revolves around retooling current teachers and reshaping the college curriculums of future educators.

“We debate whether or not the grading of schools is good or bad,” he said. “But the fact is we have to ensure that the population of Florida is well educated. As a superintendent, I would focus more on the instruction. On training and working with teachers.”

Stewart backed up Grego’s remarks about assessments and measuring students’ progress.

“However, it must be done in a healthy manner,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the Turlington Building or the capital that wants to see children so stressed out that they can’t go to school. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t measure.

“If we use assessment to drive instruction, we’ve done a great service to our students,” she said. “Common Core is about having kids discover their own. It will create life-long learners because we are no longer making passive learners by the teacher disseminating the information. We’re helping students discover it on their own and be able to answer questions that they never could before.”

Stewart said Common Core, content-wise, is not a major shift from the state’s next generation of Sunshine State Standards.

“It’s just a shift in the way we instruct students,” she said.

For more information on Common Core, visit
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