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Wisconsin Unveils New Standards; By Fall, Districts To Set Guidelines

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Fourth graders will identify the main idea of a story. Eighth graders will convert fractions to decimals. Twelfth graders will describe the properties of atoms and molecules.

Those are among the numerous goals detailed in Wisconsin's new academic standards for language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. All of the state's 427 districts must adopt the guidelines or devise their own by the fall.

The standards, which were completed last month, reflect the growing trend among states to set benchmarks for school districts in an effort to hold them accountable for student knowledge and achievement.

"We set the bar high for our students and our schools," Gov. Tommy G. Thompson said in a written statement."These standards are clear and concise as well as rigorous and challenging."

The creation of academic standards in Wisconsin had as much to do with politics as education. The process became a symbol of the long-running tension between Gov. Thompson and state Superintendent John T. Benson. ("Wis. Governor, Chief Spar Over Standards," Jan. 29, 1997.)

The Republican governor harshly criticized the standards proposal unveiled by Mr. Benson, an Independent, one year ago and asked Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum to head a group to come up with the new guidelines. Debate at public hearings centered around their specificity and clarity. Mr. Benson has said he supports the new standards.

Connecting to Curriculum

But some legislators and educators are wondering how well the new standards will jibe with current standardized tests and curricula.

"There will be some problems because we did this backwards" by not adopting the standards first, said Don E. Krahn, the executive director of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the 80,000-member state affiliate of the National Education Association.

"There will be a period of time when things don't match up, and some kids may not do as well as they should on the tests. It will probably take teachers a couple of years to adjust the curriculum," he said.

Under the new standards, scores on standardized tests will be reported differently from before. In addition to norm-referenced scores or percentiles that compare Wisconsin students with other students nationwide, there will be proficiency scores that show whether a student is achieving at an advanced, proficient, basic, or minimal level.

"Wisconsin always looked good when compared to other states," Greg Doyle, a spokesman for the Wisconsin education department, said. "It's going to be a real eye-opener to see how proficient students are."

It's too soon to say which districts will go along with the state's guidelines and which will write their own. Milwaukee, the state's largest system, with 106,000 students, has already set standards for some grade levels and requires students to pass a test to graduate.

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