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Uniform academic standards for US students: draft released

Academics and education officials have drafted a broad outline of academic standards in English and math. The standards could eventually replace the current patchwork of state standards.

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In keeping with the Obama administration’s effort to raise expectations for what students should learn and to shift schools toward the goal of 'college and career readiness,' academics and education officials have drafted a broad outline of academic standards in English and math.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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The public got its first look Wednesday at the English and math academic standards that may eventually be the new norm for America’s K-12 schools – an important step in the Obama administration’s effort to raise expectations for what students should learn and to shift schools toward the goal of “college and career readiness.”

The “common core” standards – a product of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) – have been in the works for almost a year, with academics and education officials working behind closed doors to draft a broad outline. The hope is that their work will eventually replace the current patchwork of state standards, which vary widely in rigor.

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At least some analysts believe they’re on the right track.

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“You’re always going to have controversy … but it’s a very good draft,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. “It’s comprehensive, very sequential, and has good appendices.... It’s an exemplary piece of work.”

Part of the goal of the initiative was to address the complaint among some educators that most current standards emphasize content knowledge over skills and are “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

The proposed standards in mathematics, for instance, emphasize the importance of mastering early principles and encourage the development of certain skills throughout grade levels, including abstract reasoning, problem solving, modeling, and constructing viable arguments.

“These are written to emphasize getting the fundamentals down and to increase rigor over grades, so that by the time students get to high school, they are very well prepared for a rigorous high school curriculum,” says Mike Cohen, president of Achieve, a standards-advocacy organization in Washington that has supported the project. “That’s a stark contrast to what we’ve had for a long time in this country.”

In the draft math standards, eighth-graders would be expected to demonstrate knowledge of functions, linear equations, and the Pythagorean theorem. In language arts, they would be expected, among other things, to be able analyze a text’s meaning by referring to an author’s use of metaphors, analogies, or allusions.

The draft also includes an extensive list of literary works in an appendix that illustrates the sorts of material students should be able to read and understand at different grade levels.

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The draft of the standards is now open for public comments until April 2, and a final version is due to be released later this spring.

It’s unclear, however, how many states will adopt the standards. And even the project’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that adopting the standards is just a first step in effecting change.

“Standards per se just set the destination,” says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, in an e-mail response to questions. “They’ve set a good one. To have a prayer of reaching that destination, however, requires – for starters – sound curriculum, effective instruction, and really good assessments. All of that heavy lifting still lies ahead.”

Earlier efforts to set national standards in the 1990s failed, but some say the new effort has more hope of succeeding because it’s being developed by the states, rather than the federal government. Every state but Texas and Alaska has given support to the project, although only Kentucky has officially signed on to the new standards.

It remains controversial among some critics who see any attempt at common national standards – even ones developed by the states – as undermining the decentralized system that has always flourished in US education.

But others say it’s a crucial starting point for any attempt to improve education.

“It’s about time we had some agreement in this country about what kids should know by the time they leave high school,” says Mr. Jennings. “We’ve spent too many decades chasing this reform and that reform and haven’t tried to agree on what kids should actually know.... This is a giant first step.”