In a span of less than two years, 40 states have signed on to an effort to adopt common standards in math and language arts — a development that will have big implications for how those subjects are taught and assessed in local school districts.
But while school boards have mainly sat on the sidelines as governors and state legislatures signed on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative, this is no time to “wait for the states,” said Roberta Stanley, director of Federal Affairs for NSBA, and Patte Barth, director of the organization’s Center for Public Education.
“This is a state-driven initiative, but there are things you can do now,” Barth said during a Jan. 19 webinar for NSBA’s National Afiliate program. “You know what your needs are at the local level.”
Some of the things school districts should do are: get involved in the discussion of state standards with their state education agencies; set aside time for school boards to review CCSS and its implications; and form discussion groups on the subject involving parents, teachers, and administrators.
School districts can also survey local businesses for their input and reach out to their communities in other ways, Barth and Stanley said. And they should partner with local colleges and universities to work on professional development, curriculum alignment, and placement tests that some colleges are giving high school juniors to determine if they are on track to do college-level work when they graduate.
Led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the initiative aims, in the words of its creators, devise “fewer, clearer, [and] higher” standards that will enable all high school students to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace and help America compete in the growing global economy.
“It’s an exciting time,” Bill Scott, executive director of the Kentucky School Boards Association, said recently. “But it’s also producing a lot of anxiety.”
A study released in December by ACT found that just 38 percent of 11th graders scored at the college-and-career level benchmarks in 2009. Writing and language ability were somewhat better, with 51 percent and 53 percent, respectively, meeting those standards.
The language arts levels were lower for African Americans and Latinos. For example, just 11 percent of African-American 11th graders and 19 percent of Latino 11th graders met the reading threshold.
In both math and language arts, the standards ask students to do more analysis and critical thinking than currently required by many state tests. Barth pointed to a language arts example that required eighth graders to read Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and then analyze how the poem’s opening stanza structures its rhythm and meter, and how the speaker’s themes develop over the course of the text.
“We’re taking material we’ve already taught eighth graders, and we’re ratcheting it up.” Barth said.
In addition, Barth said, CCSS includes new standards for reading and writing in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. These standards are expected to compliment current content standards in these subjects. Teachers of these subjects will be responsible for seeing that their students meet them.
According to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy, most states say they will not be able to fully implement the standards until 2013 or later. Still, many observers say the time frame is relatively short for such a far-reaching initiative.
During the Race to the Top competition, officials from the Department of Education strongly encouraged states to adopt the standards, Stanley said, but only 11 states and the District of Columbia were awarded RTTT grants.
Stanley said the common core initiative is occurring in tandem with efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). She said Department of Education officials are expected support tying ESEA program funding to adoption of CCSS — something NSBA opposes, saying its support has been contingent on the standards remaining voluntary for states.
Other challenges for states will be implementing technology-driven assessment systems at a time when state and district budgets are being cut, Stanley said. She said more resources will be needed to support any new technology.
“We know the frustration local districts have in terms of the technology Washington, D.C, expects you to have,” Stanley said.