Move toward national education standards goes forward

Colorado’s school districts—the place where state and local control have long reigned supreme—could soon become a lot more standardized.

Monday, the Common Core Standards Initiative, a project of the National Council of Governors and the Council of Chief State School Officers, released the first official draft of standards in English language arts and math, standards that it hopes will one day be adopted by every state in the nation. Currently, 48 states have signed on to the project, expressing interest in voluntarily adopting the standards once they are written. (The not-surprising exceptions are Texas and Alaska.)

Colorado appears significantly on board with the project by virtue of the fact that it was one of six states asked to review the standards before they were made public—this, despite the fact that it is currently in the process of revising its own standards.

The Washington Post provided a concise summary of the debate over common standards for the nation:

The 2002 No Child Left Behind law left it to states to determine what students ought to learn in reading and math and how they ought to be tested. As a result, the benchmarks for proficiency in those subjects vary widely from coast to coast.

Proponents of national standards say it is folly to have such uneven expectations for students when the United States trails several countries in Asia and Europe on international exams. Opponents point to a long tradition of local control in American schools and say the federal government should not dictate what is taught.

The release of the standards follows a report, released Friday, from the Colorado Legacy Association, the nonprofit arm of the Colorado Department of Education. The report devoted a full page to suggesting that allowing local school districts to decide what and how students should be learning is not necessarily the best and highest system:

Our constitution (specifically, Section 15 of Article IX of the constitution) provides that local school boards shall retain control of instruction for schools in their districts. This language reflects the populist movement of the late 19th century, when our constitution was drafted…

Too many times, however, the phrase “local control” has been used in Colorado for the purpose of resisting necessary transformation. Local control has become a shield by which both the state and districts justify inertia, rather than a critical directive about the importance of maintaining and supporting local involvement in education. We cannot maintain this stance any longer if we want a truly excellent education system.

Local control in Colorado should not mean that districts are excused from incorporating new and higher academic standards that meet the requirements of our changing society.

The report went on to suggest that local school districts should still be used to incubate innovative ideas, which can then be adopted statewide.

If states actually adopt the common standards, they will presumably be followed by a nationwide exam in lieu of the current statewide exams. The Common Core Standards acknowledges that such an exam is likely, but insists that it may actually be in the form of several kinds of assessments, given throughout the year:

States know that standards alone cannot propel the systems change we need. Assessments aligned with the common core state standards will play an important role in making sure the standards are embedded in our education system.

Some states will voluntarily come together to develop new innovative, common assessments as part of the Race to the Top program. However, states do not want to see one national assessment given once a year that relies on multiple-choice items. A common assessment system will include multiple forms of assessment so that what a student knows and can do, not the form of the assessment, determines performance. An assessment system must provide assessment for learning as well as assessment of learning.

Want to read and comment on the proposed common standards before the October 21 deadline? Go here.

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Katie Redding

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