In Twist, Consensus Growing on Academic Standards in Va.

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In the continuing argument over academic standards, disagreement over how they are defined, how rigorous they should be, and how they should be implemented and assessed is all too common.

Yet, in the case of Virginia's "Standards of Learning," now winding down its first year of implementation in more than 1,700 schools throughout the state, an unusual consensus has emerged among many educators, scholars, lawmakers, and parents. They agree that the state's standards for science, mathematics, English language arts, and history and social sciences are clear and concise, rigorous, and heavy on content.

That is not to say that they are uniformly loved--or hated. But the characteristics of the standards are both their strength and their weakness, educators say.

And they are also the reason that the Virginia model is gaining national attention and acclaim as educators and policymakers in at least nine other states look for guidance in crafting their own.

Borrowing Freely

Virginia's efforts at writing standards did not come easy. First, they had to be revived by Republican Gov. George F. Allen after his predecessor scrapped an earlier plan amid criticism that the standards were too vague.

Then, hundreds of people flocked to hearings to discuss the standards before their approval two years ago. Debate erupted early, especially over the history and social sciences section, which many parents and teachers feared covered an unrealistically ambitious amount of material. The debate continues in Virginia, where high-stakes tests to measure how well students meet the standards are planned to be rolled out next year.

Nonetheless, officials in at least a half-dozen states are undertaking a careful review of the document, which provides grade-by-grade guidelines for what students are to be taught in the four disciplines. Several states plan to borrow heavily from Virginia, saying much of the hard work of defining what students need to know has already been done and requires only to be adapted to the needs of each state.

"The Virginia document is one of those that states ought to look to if looking for a guide to writing standards," said Matthew Gandal, the author of an annual report by the American Federation of Teachers that grades states on the clarity and specificity of their standards, though not their intellectual rigor. ("By AFT's Standards, Only 15 States Deserve Passing Grade," Aug. 7, 1996.) The AFT report identified Virginia as the only state with exemplary standards in all four core areas.

"There is no reason state standards should be held up at state borders," Mr. Gandal said.

'Mom's English'

Several states are doing just that as they launch their own efforts at creating or updating standards in core subjects, including the state that once served as the nation's curriculum bellwether.

Members of a California commission that the legislature appointed to draft standards for the public schools there say Virginia's blueprint is a valuable resource.

"Part of the reason we wanted to look at them is that they are well known. But when you take a close look at them, they are concise and rigorous, and they are grade-by-grade, which is unusual," said Sheila Byrd, the deputy director of the California panel. Commission members recently reviewed eight sets of standards--California's own frameworks, those of other states, districts, and nonprofit groups, and even other countries'--and will adapt the best aspects of each into the state's own document. The Virginia standards won the highest marks from the commission, Ms. Byrd said.

Officials in South Carolina say they are planning to follow Virginia's lead. Other states, including Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin, have also expressed interest in the Virginia model.

The guidelines have especially won favor from conservative groups and parents who are demanding that basics be stressed.

The Virginia standards, especially in history, have gained favor among parents because of their clarity and rigor, education scholar Diane Ravitch said.

"Parents really want their kids to learn history. They are fed up with the social studies approach and airy pedagogical jargon," said Ms. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. She has long been embroiled in national and state-level debates over history standards.

Leah Vukmir is heading a campaign by more than 300 parents throughout Wisconsin to use the Virginia standards as a guide in fashioning that state's own.

"We want to know why we are spending money on tutors when [children] should be learning these things in school," said Ms. Vukmir, the president of the grassroots organization Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools. "Parents like the Virginia standards because they are written in plain 'Mom's English.' They want to know what is expected of their child each year," she said.

'Trivial Pursuit'

Ample opposition and criticism have balanced out the praise.

Ellen Wright, who chairs the California commission, said that while the Virginia model is a good guide for writing standards, it is not an ideal. Although they are loaded with facts, Virginia's frameworks do little to put them in context, she said.

What's more, the history portion has been mocked by critics as nothing more than a game of "Trivial Pursuit," in which students are crammed with names, dates, and other facts with no real understanding of the relationships among them. In fact, Massachusetts officials ran into heated opposition this year when a committee proposed a history framework that it adapted from Virginia. ("With Vote Set, Mass. Board Still at Odds Over History Standards," in This Week's News.)

Within Virginia, educators have also complained that the state expects the new standards to be implemented too quickly.

Many Virginia districts are taking advantage of the state's option of formulating their own standards, if they exceed the state's requirements, to better match the developmental needs of students.

"The standards have made us really take a second look at what we are expecting of our children," said Sara R. Shoob, an assistant principal at Cub Run Elementary School in Fairfax County, Va. "But I think a lot of these standards are asking kids to memorize rote facts. They are just too narrow."

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