Florida Catholic schools are embracing Common Core academic standards and seriously considering whether to take the coming state tests aligned to them. In the meantime, their leaders say, 30 to 40 Catholic schools want to administer the FCAT in 2014, in what would be a trial run for potential transition to Common Core testing.
“Our mission is the same, public or Catholic school, to create productive citizens in our world that actually have the skills in life they need,” Alberto Vazquez-Matos, schools superintendent for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, told redefinED. “We’ll all be raising the standards and talking the same academic language.”
The push by Catholic schools towards common standards – and perhaps common tests – is an interesting counterpoint to the debate that followed last week’s comments by Gov. Rick Scott. Scott re-opened the door to a long-running conversation about voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs by saying he wants to see students in those programs take the same tests as their public school peers.
Right now, the state does not require tax credit scholarship students to take the FCAT, but they are mandated to take another comparable, state-approved test such as the Stanford Achievement Test or Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Disabled students who use McKay vouchers to attend private schools are not required by the state to take any such tests.
This year, Catholic schools in Florida enroll 7,673 tax credit scholarship students. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog.)
Scott’s comments sparked suggestions from some school choice critics that private schools were dodging comparisons to public schools. But Florida’s Catholic schools have been quietly moving towards Common Core for more than year. In fact, all 237 Catholic schools in Florida will be rolling out a “blended’’ version of the language arts standards, right along with public schools, in 2014.
Moving to Common Core isn’t such a leap for diocese schools, said James Herzog, associate director for education at the Florida Catholic Conference. They have long used Next Generation Sunshine State Standards – the standards tested by the FCAT – with some modifications.
The seven Catholic school superintendents in Florida met more than a year ago to discuss Common Core standards, which are academic benchmarks adopted by Florida and 45 other states. They’re impressed overall, but worry that in some places the standards are a step back academically for Catholic schools, Herzog said.
Catholic school leaders also want to preserve their schools’ unique learning environments, where students are taught Catholic prayers, theology and faith. That’s being accomplished through a national group called the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative, which is working to infuse Catholic identity into instruction based on Common Core.
Signing up for the FCAT isn’t that radical for Catholic schools, either, said Vazquez-Matos, who oversees 11,304 students in five counties. Students in the diocese system have taken the national Iowa Test of Basic Skills for years.
A state law passed last spring allows private schools to administer the FCAT to their students beginning in the 2013-14 school year. Schools can begin applying for that feature next month.
Herzog said at least 30 to 40 Catholic schools want in, but there is a limit on the number of private schools allowed to participate. The idea, he said, is to give the FCAT a shot in a pilot program of sorts, to see how it works and what it takes for the schools to become state testing sites.
Eventually, “I think we will see some of our schools use the FCAT” and its Common Core successor, Herzog said.
On a related note, Catholic schools also want their students to take state-mandated end-of-course exams.
Right now, a big problem in Florida’s private school sector is access to those exams, Herzog said.
Florida only has 37 Catholic high schools. The cost of tuition is a factor for many parents, and some students end up transferring to public schools. Once there, they must take EOC exams in algebra I, biology and geometry. These exams are not available in private schools, so many former Catholic school students have to take the EOC exams later – sometimes a year or two after completing the courses.
“It’s a burdensome thing,’’ Herzog said.
The idea of taking state tests does raise concerns among Catholic school leaders and parents. They worry where the movement will lead and how it could affect their schools and teachers. They don’t want testing to be mandated, Herzog said. They also don’t want to lose what makes their schools unique.
“There is a fear,’’ Vazquez-Matos said.
But, he added, there is also opportunity. The potential upside is more apples-to-apples comparisons that, in his view, can improve education overall. And there is time to bring all concerns to the table.
“We want to make the best considerations for our schools,” he said.