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States Slow Standards Work Amid ‘Common Core’ Push

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 06, 2009 6 min read
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As they wait to see how the latest push for common national standards plays out, some states are putting off or slowing the revision of their own academic standards to avoid wasted effort and spending.

At least four states—Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania—have halted revision of their standards for mathematics or English/language arts, the subjects that standards writers for the national initiative are turning to first. At least three other states have throttled back similar efforts until the grade-by-grade, K-12 common standards are made final in the coming months.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which are overseeing the “Common Core” effort to develop more-uniform expectations for the nation’s students, have already released a draft of college- and career-readiness standards for math and English/language arts. (“New Standards Draft Offers More Details,” Sept. 30, 2009.)

Experts writing the standards are also drafting grade-by-grade K-12 standards for math and English/language arts that are expected to be put in final form early next year. That’s the document that many states are waiting to see before proceeding with work on their own standards.

Scott Montgomery, the deputy executive director of the CCSSO, said state schools chiefs were shown a sample of those grade-by-grade standards at a meeting in Chicago at the end of October.

“They like what they see,” said Mr. Montgomery. “The discussion isn’t about whether the standards are right or wrong. The discussion is about how do we adopt, implement, and get them into the hands of the teachers in our states so students can be competitive around the world.”

Mr. Montgomery said that, based on a CCSSO survey, he expects that at least a dozen states will adopt the common standards within six months of their release. He said 16 participating states have the capacity to adopt them within six months and another 15 within a year; the rest would likely need more time.

Forty-eight states—all but Alaska and Texas—have pledged to adopt the whole package of common standards, and that package will constitute no less than 85 percent of what the states ultimately have committed to adopt and implement, Mr. Montgomery said.

It’s prudent for states to put the revision of their standards on hold, said Michael L. Kamil, an education professor at Stanford University and a member of the feedback group for the common standards in English/language arts. (States refer to “English/language arts” standards by a variety of names, including “reading” and “language arts.”)

For one thing, the U.S. Department of Education has announced it will provide $350 million for joint assessments that align with the common standards as part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund, a program under the federal economic-stimulus law.

“The delay would be very pragmatic because, as someone said to me, ‘Why should I spend my money if I can get Race to the Top money to do exactly the same thing?’ ” Mr. Kamil said.He added that the downside is that “we’re putting off improvement for students until we get this done.”

Cathy L. Seeley, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, also sees prudence in a go-slow approach.

“It would be foolish for states to be implementing major standards revision right now when they have something looming [nationally],” she said. “That doesn’t mean that those involved in the Common Core standards should be rushing ahead. They need to get lots of feedback and input from people in the various states.”

Timing Issues

Deborah S. Delisle, the Ohio commissioner of education, said state legislation requires Ohio to adopt revised standards in math and English/language arts by June. If the schedule for the release of the common standards stays on track, the timing may work out well, she said.

But if the release of the grade-by-grade standards is delayed, she said, Ohio education officials may have to ask the legislature to extend the state deadline.

“What I don’t want to happen is for us to adopt one set of standards and then, when the Common Core comes out, to go through this whole process again. That would be too confusing for school districts,” Ms. Delisle said.

But the schedules in a number of other states for revisiting standards are not meshing as well with that of the national initiative.

Ken James, Arkansas’ former commissioner of education, was one of the first state school chiefs to pledge adoption of the common standards. He later decided not to launch the revision process for the state’s English/language arts standards scheduled for this past summer, according to Julie Johnson Thompson, the director of communications for the Arkansas education department.

The state’s math standards are up for revision this coming summer, but Tom Kimbrell, who became the Arkansas education commissioner in September, has not decided whether to proceed with the revision, Ms. Thompson said.

In Florida, the state crafted final new standards for English/language arts recently but postponed getting them approved by the state board of education until the common grade-by-grade standards are released, said Eric J. Smith, the state commissioner there. He said he’s confident the national standards “will be rigorous and move the nation forward,” but added that implementation will be much harder.

Florida adopted new math standards in 2007, and the state has a six-year contract for the development of an assessment aligned with those standards.

“There’s got to be a reasonable time frame for phase-in. It would be unrealistic in this economy to expect states to carry the financial burden,” he said.

In Louisiana, the state had just started bringing teachers together to write new standards for math, English/language arts, social studies, and science at about the same time the common-standards initiative got off the ground, according to Scott M. Norton, the assistant superintendent for the office of student and school performance for the state department of education. State education officials had signed a contract with WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization, which is overseeing the process.

Mr. Norton said Louisiana decided to suspend development of the standards until the common grade-by-grade standards are released. The state renegotiated and reduced the contract with WestEd so that about half a million dollars in spending was put on hold until the state standards-revision process is resumed.

“We didn’t want to spend money on something that would never see the light of day,” Mr. Norton said.

Pennsylvania is yet another state that has halted revision of math and English/language arts standards.

“We realized we have a desire to adopt national standards, and we think that work is past due, and we’re pleased it is happening,” said Gerald L. Zahorchak, the secretary of education for the state.

Slowing Down

Other states have slowed their processes for revising standards.

In Minnesota, where English/language arts standards are scheduled for revision this school year, officials have done some preliminary work, said Karen Klinzing, the assistant commissioner for the education department. But, she added, “we haven’t done all the steps of the process, because we would like some of the process to go along simultaneously with development of the Common Core standards.”

Education officials in Massachusetts and New Jersey have also slowed down the schedule for revising math and English/language arts standards this school year to better match the timing of the release of common grade-by-grade standards.

“We’re making sure that we time our process so that we can take advantage of the final product that comes out of the Common Core,” said Mitchell D. Chester, the Massachusetts commissioner of education.

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as States Slow, Put Off Work on Standards


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