Minnesota Scrambles To Revamp Standards

By Darcia Harris Bowman — February 19, 2003 4 min read
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A group of education experts selected to overhaul Minnesota’s rules for what public school students must learn are in a race with the clock.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Minnesota Academic Standards Committee was scheduled to meet for the first time this week—just over two weeks after the Republican governor announced its formation and less than six weeks before the panel is required to hand the legislature a replacement for the state’s embattled academic standards.

Mr. Pawlenty, who took office last month, and his education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke, say their goal is to replace the state’s tasks-over-tests approach to standards, called the Profile of Learning, with a more traditional system that hinges on core content and testing.

“Minnesota started America down the path of uniform standards for schools, but we’ve veered badly off track,” Gov. Pawlenty said in his Feb. 6 State of the State Address. “Our children deserve nation-leading academic standards that are clear, rigorous, and focused on what students need to know.”

To meet the Profile of Learning’s requirements, students must complete tasks that require them to apply their knowledge. In mathematics, for example, they might devise savings plans or build model homes to scale. Those assessments have turned out to be hard to devise and use, and the system has been heavily criticized by teachers, parents, and independent experts.

Still, the profile took nearly a decade and millions of dollars to develop, and some Minnesotans argue that it would be a mistake to simply import another state’s educational standards, such as the Standards of Learning used in Virginia, where Ms. Yecke served as state schools chief.

“I’m hoping we don’t lose what we have that’s good,” said Judy Shaubach, the president of Education Minnesota, the state’s combined affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “We shouldn’t just take something from another state.”

Skills vs. Knowledge

Ms. Yecke said she and the governor expect the committee to draw on the work of a number of states, including Virginia. Many of the examples committee members will be asked to look at have been given a grade of A by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank that advocates standards-based learning.

Whatever the committee proposes—and it will most certainly be oriented more toward core subjects than particular skills—Ms. Yecke said a primary goal would be preserving local control.

“Our obligation is to establish a framework of educational standards,” she said. “It is for the local level to decide how those standards are met.”

Compromise may be in order to get a plan through the legislature. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives makes annual attempts to abolish the Profile of Learning. The Senate, run by Democrats, repeatedly blocks those repeal efforts.

The House education committee appears ready to vote once again to repeal the standards. The legislation also would essentially rubber-stamp the process and timeline that the governor has laid out for crafting a replacement.

Gov. Pawlenty and the House see eye to eye, said Rep. Barb Sykora, a Republican who chairs the House education committee, but the Senate remains a wild card.

Democratic Sen. Steve Kelley, the chairman of that chamber’s education committee, said this year the profile would lose on an up-or-down vote even in the Senate. His goal will be to avoid simply replacing it with the test- centered kind of system that is more typical around the country. He also wants a slower process than the House is pushing.

“I think we should continue to reach for both content knowledge and skills development. Why should we drop back to Virginia’s standards?” he said, referring to the test-heavy Standards of Learning used in that state.

Ambitious Timeline

Still, experts say Minnesota policymakers would do well to look to other states for guidance, particularly places that have recently revamped their own systems, like Indiana and Ohio.

Minnesota’s “intent to promote higher-level skills than typically associated with standardized testing and learning was impressive, but it was done at the expense of core content areas,” said Matt Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit organization founded by governors and corporate leaders that advocates standards-based education.

Achieve reviewed Minnesota’s graduation standards in 2000 and concluded that, while well-intentioned, they were hard to use in the classroom, unclear, lacking in detail, and covered too many subjects. The group advised the state to devise content-based standards and introduce uniform statewide tests, but the report was “put on a shelf,” Mr. Gandal said.

Many observers doubt that the governor’s committee can do much on such a tight timeline. “If what they’re envisioning is a ground-up revision of the profile, six weeks isn’t enough time,” Sen. Kelley said.

The committee will focus exclusively on drawing up new benchmarks for what students must know in reading and mathematics. The governor wants those pieces in place in schools at the start of next school year. New standards for other subjects, such as science and social studies, will follow, Ms. Yecke said.

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