Standards

State School Boards Raise Questions About Standards

By Catherine Gewertz — February 03, 2010 5 min read
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States that adopt the proposed common academic standards must use the document word for word, initiative leaders said last week.

Answering questions from state school board members at a meeting here, representatives of the two groups leading the effort said that states may not revise the standards or select only portions to adopt.

“You can’t pick and choose what you want. This is not cafeteria-style standards,” said David Wakelyn, the program director of the education division of the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices.

“Adoption means adoption,” said Scott Montgomery, a deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is organizing the common-standards endeavor with the NGA.

Mr. Wakelyn and Mr. Montgomery sought to clarify an element of the pact 48 states signed last year in pledging support for the Common Core Standards Initiative. It said the common standards, which are being written for English/language arts and math, must represent “at least 85 percent of the state’s standards” in those subjects.

Some thought that meant states could craft a set of standards with 85 percent of the common standards and 15 percent of their own. But NGA and CCSSO officials said states must approve the common-standards document verbatim. They may choose to add 15 percent of their own material. How that 15 percent would be measured remains an open question.

That exercise in elementary math was only one of many questions that arose during a two-day meeting of boards of education from a dozen Western states here last week. It was the second of four regional meetings organized by the National Association of State Boards of Education, or NASBE, to help its members learn about the proposed common standards. In most states, it is those boards that will decide whether to adopt the standards.

A draft of K-12 standards in math and English/language arts has been widely circulated for review by states and organizations. Drafters hope to open it to public comment by mid-February. (“Reviewers Urge Standards Fixes,” Feb. 3, 2010.) A set of “college- and career-ready” standards was issued last fall.

Together, they are intended to establish a shared vision of the skills and knowledge students should master by high school graduation and a road map for developing those skills as they progress through school. Debate persists, however, about whether that vision is the correct one. Too Little Information

Discussion during the meeting largely ignored arguments about the standards’ content. It focused instead on the challenges states could face in trying to adopt them and the unanswered questions that hinder their decisionmaking.

Representatives from some states said that even though their states have pledged support for common standards, board members are uncertain about accepting them because they’ve seen only drafts. “We really are committed to trying to align [with the common standards], but we don’t know what we’re dealing with,” said Patty Myers, the chairwoman of Montana’s board.

Nearly all the state board representatives said they worry that they lack the time and money to develop all the elements necessary to make standards meaningful.

In Washington state, officials are distributing information about the standards and soliciting feedback, said Sheila Fox, a board member there. Even if adoption garners broad support, she said, other “planets need to be aligned”: good curriculum, assessments, and professional development.

State board members also expressed many concerns about how the common standards interact with the competition for federal Race to the Top money. Under U.S. Department of Education criteria,states have a better chance of winning such grants if they support common standards.

One member asked what would happen if a state won that economic-stimulus aid and later decided against the common standards. Another asked what would happen if a state won the money but couldn’t adopt the standards by the federal government’s Aug. 2 deadline.

While no immediate answers to those questions were given at the meeting, federal officials have said that significant departures from states’ application pledges could warrant discussion about withholding portions of their grants.

Revisions and Philosophy

Concern about the perceived intrusion of federal officials into state education authority, because of their support of common standards and assessments, also was a frequently stated issue.

In Montana, officials “want to do the right thing,” said Steve Meloy, the executive secretary for the board of education. But they keep hearing the question, “Where will we draw the line? First it’s standards, then curriculum, then textbooks,” he said.

A number of board members expressed reluctance to abandon their states’ recently revised standards. “I don’t think we’re going to be anxious to throw out our standards and start all over again with theirs,” said Randy DeHoff, a member of the state board in Colorado, which recently revised its standards.

Some members questioned whether standards or the common assessments eventually designed to align with them will be compatible with their educational philosophies. In Wyoming, said its board vice chairwoman, Sandra Barton, students are assessed through a “body of evidence” approach that draws on their work over time to demonstrate proficiency.

Discussion of the common standards sparked a dialogue about teacher quality, too.

“The standards aren’t going to do diddly for any kid in any state if we don’t do something about teacher quality,” said Esther J. Cox, a board member from Alaska, one of two states that have not signed on to support the initiative.

Many attendees said the August adoption deadline in Race to the Top had forced them into an uncomfortably hurried posture. “This is really rushed. We just don’t know very much yet,” said Nevada board member Cliff Ferry. In Nevada, a separate committee is charged with standards adoption, and the state board can weigh in, but that “probably won’t happen” in this case because of the short timeline, he said.

Larry Shumway, Utah’s schools superintendent, told the group that common standards presented “an opportunity to do the right thing.” But he acknowledged that much soul-searching remains.

“I hope you’ll come away from this meeting with a knot in the pit of your stomach about how far we have to go,” he said. “It should keep you up at night.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as State School Boards Raise Questions on Standards

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