Published Online: August 6, 2010
Published in Print: August 11, 2010, as States Rush to Adopt Common Standards as RTT Contest Ends

More Than Two-Thirds of States Adopt Core Standards

Mass. and Calif. are among those signing on.

More than two-thirds of the states—including Massachusetts, a state long famed for excellent academic-content standards—have adopted common grade-level expectations, as the movement to align nationwide what students are learning continues to gain steam.

As of Aug. 6, the number of states agreeing to follow the math and English/language arts benchmarks crafted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative had grown to 34, plus the District of Columbia.

Adoption of the common standards in Massachusetts on July 19 carried symbolic importance because the state’s curricular frameworks and aligned assessments, put in place by a 1993 education reform law, have been widely praised for almost two decades.

“I think generally that we may see some states fall into place because of Massachusetts,” said Chris E. Minnich, the director of curriculum and assessment for the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the two state-led groups that organized the initiative. “But we’ve worked with states all along to make sure that these are adoptable. We’re excited to see states taking quick action on this.”

Changing Landscape

The quick pace of adoption has been fueled in no small part by the federal Race to the Top competition, which gave additional points to states if they signed on to the common standards by Aug. 2. Finalists for $3.4 billion still to be awarded in grants were named last month. ("Race to Top Finalists Prepare for Last Pitch," this issue.)

Joining the Initiative

Released in June, the standards were crafted under the auspices of the CCSSO and the National Governors Association, both based in Washington, with the blessing of federal education officials.

After months of debate, top state education officials celebrated Massachusetts’ adoption of the standards.

“From my standpoint, this is a watershed moment, a historical moment for Massachusetts,” said S. Paul Reville, the state secretary of education. “It’s a decision that’s good for students, good for equity, good for education.”

Opponents of the standards swap in that state generated a well-publicized but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to delay the adoption process. They contended that the common expectations are not as rigorous or detailed as the state’s existing curriculum frameworks, in spite of reviews that have found the common-core standards largely comparable to those in the Bay State.

Officials of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a critic of the common standards, noted that several groups conducting such reviews, including the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, and Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit consultant to the effort, have received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a supporter of the common standards. (The foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

The Pioneer Institute asserted that, among other shortcomings, the common standards do not give enough specific examples of literary and cultural texts that should be taught at each grade level, and that they put too much emphasis on nonliterary narratives.

Sandra Stotsky, a former member of the Massachusetts board of education, said the common standards don’t put enough emphasis on algebraic concepts in the middle grades. The oversight could reduce the percentage of students capable of passing algebra in the 8th grade, she said.

“I would say these standards are not only weaker, they are misconceptualized,” Ms. Stotsky said.

Before the state board’s vote, two gubernatorial challengers to Gov. Deval L.Patrick—former Pioneer Institute co-director Charles D. Baker Jr., a Republican, and Tim Cahill, the state treasurer and an Independent—questioned the replacement of the state’s standards, suggesting that the adoption could become a major point of debate in the gubernatorial contest this fall.

Testing Concerns

The debate in Massachusetts also spotlighted another area of concern for states: the fate of current student-assessment systems, given that new ones aligned with the common-core benchmarks are nowhere near pilot stages yet.

William F. Weld, a Republican and a former governor who signed the 1993 education reform bill into law, opposed the change in part, he argued, because it would herald the end of the state’s aligned assessment, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. And Senate Minority Leader Richard R. Tisei, a Republican, accused Gov. Patrick, a Democrat, of trying to curry favor with the Massachusetts Teachers Association by dismantling MCAS, which is unpopular with the union.

Massachusetts is a governing member of one of the two main consortia applying for federal funding through a smaller, $350 million portion of the Race to the Top Fund to design assessments aligned with the common-core standards. If funded, that consortium expects governing states to adopt a common reading and math test by the 2014-15 school year. ("Three Groups Submit Applications for Race to Top Assessment Grants," July 14, 2010.)

But Mr. Reville said the state would keep MCAS for the foreseeable future and plans to make only “modest” changes in the meantime to align it with the new expectations.

“We’ve made it clear and been quite specific with the U.S. Department of Education that our participation [in the consortium] is contingent on those [common] assessments’ being at least as rigorous as our own,” he said. “We may use them for sampling purposes or to augment our own assessments.”

Actions Elsewhere

Adoptions of the common standards in most of the other states has taken place with little of the public contention that characterized Massachusetts’ process, but there have been a few notable exceptions.

In Colorado, the standards squeaked through the state board of education on a 4-3 vote on Aug. 2, the deadline for adopting the standards to garner additional competitive points under federal grant contest. Opponents there mainly cited concerns about loss of local control.

In California, another state whose standards are deemed to be of high quality, the state board of education adopted the common standards unanimously, also on Aug. 2. But the adoption occurred only after the California State Academic Content Standards Commission decided to supplement the math standards, including by introducing some math concepts in earlier grades.

The common-core initiative permits states to add 15 percent of other material to the standards, and officials of California’s content panel indicated they wanted to ensure that 8th graders would be fully prepared to take algebra in that grade if they chose.

And although Minnesota hasn’t yet reached the adoption phase, state education leaders there have stated that they don’t plan to adopt the common math standards. Minnesota Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren, for instance, said in a statement that the common math standards “did not meet our expectations.” She added that the state would review them again in the 2010-11 school year.

Two other states, Texas and Alaska, are not participating in the venture.

Better Benchmarks?

The standards got an additional boost on July 19, when the Fordham Institute, long known for its reviews and critiques of state academic-content standards, unveiled an analysis asserting that the common standards are better overall than those of 33 individual states.

“If they implement as well as adopt, kids in about three-quarters of the states will clearly be better off than they are today,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the group. “The United States is approaching a set of agreed-upon national standards for a core of its K-12 curriculum, and I think that’s a healthy thing for the country.”

The Fordham Institute found that the common-core expectations meet or best the quality of every state’s current math guidelines and all but three sets of English/language arts standards.

California and Indiana, as well as the District of Columbia, had slightly higher-quality English standards than the common standards, according to the analysis.

An Indiana official conceded that the slightly higher grade for its former English standards was a bit “awkward” for the state, but pointed to the benefits of working with a group of states on common benchmarks.

The review shows that “there wasn’t an astronomical difference in quality,” said Todd Houston, the chief of staff to Tony Bennett, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction. “There’s a lot of benefit to the common core: the easy comparison in how states are doing, our leadership role in the assessment consortium [for developing aligned tests], and knowing that more resources and textbooks will be aligned.”

The state approved the standards Aug. 3.

Still, proponents of the common-core effort wonder whether the federal tactic of using the Race to the Top contest to encourage states’ quick adoption of the standards could ultimately backfire.

“For those states that don’t get Race to the Top funding, how energized will they be about implementing the standards they’ve adopted?” said Mr. Finn of the Fordham Institute. “States are broke, and putting these things in practice properly and quickly isn’t cheap or easy or politically painless.”

Vol. 29, Issue 37, Page 8

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