Higher Standards: Illinois Education Leaders Favor Adoption of New National Education Goals

Jun 1, 2010

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

"Most state standards are abysmal; they’re vague; they’re not very rigorous; and they have a lot of silliness lurking within them.” 

Michael Petrilli,
Thomas B. Fordham Institute

 All public school students would be expected to learn the same concepts and skills in math and English under a proposed set of national academic standards, an idea that proponents say is necessary and critics say doesn’t go far enough.

A group of math and English language arts experts, convened by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, released in March a draft form of the proposed Common Core State Standards Initiative for students in kindergarten through grade 12. A final version of the standards is expected to be released in late spring.

Illinois is one of 48 states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, that helped develop the standards and hopes to adopt them after they are final. Illinois Superintendent of Schools Christopher Koch, who has been pushing for a national set of standards, says Illinois’ current educational standards are overly broad and include too much material for teachers to cover each year. They were last updated in 1997, which is too long ago, he says.

“We have the goal of fewer, higher and clearer standards,” Koch says of the national standards. If they were adopted in Illinois, the national standards would affect about 2.1 million students in 869 districts and 4,326 schools. 

Supporters of the national standards praise the initiative, saying it is necessary to keep high school graduates competitive in the workforce and out of remedial courses when they attend college. The Alliance for Excellent Education, a national organization that works to ensure high school graduates are ready for college, cited a 2004 study by the National Center for Education Statistics that found 42 percent of freshmen in two-year public colleges and 20 percent of freshmen in four-year public colleges took at least one remedial course in fall 2000.

“If it’s becoming more and more important that graduating students are college- and career-ready, and they go to college and end up in remedial classes, that tells us we have a problem with our expectations,” says Dane Linn, education division director at the National Governors Association, who oversaw the standards project. “We have a problem with the standards that are currently in place and the assessments that are in place to measure those standards.”

The proposed national standards have been compared to those in other countries because high school graduates are more likely to face international competition today, supporters say.

“We felt it was important to talk about internationally benchmarked common standards so our students can be competitive,” Koch says.

Common standards also can help ensure smooth transitions for students who move from one state to another, say leaders in the standards project, as well as in the Illinois Parent Teacher Association and the National PTA. Currently, each state has its own set of educational standards and tests.

“In a world where families are moving and expectations and jobs are no longer bound by state borders, it doesn’t make sense to have those disparate standards,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national group that represents state school superintendents.

During the 2008-2009 school year, 13.5 percent of Illinois public school students either moved out of state or to another district in Illinois, says Matt Vanover, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Adoption of the proposed national standards would be voluntary for states, which could also change up to 15 percent of the goals. As of late April, Kentucky was the only state to officially accept the standards while they were still in draft form.

Proponents of the national standards hope enough states adopt them so that common tests can be developed to measure and compare students’ achievement. Common testing also might help states save money by eliminating the need to develop their own exams, supporters say.

Leaders of some states, such as Massachusetts, say they already have high educational standards and will not adopt the national ones if they are lower than those that exist in the state. Some observers of the effort think most states would benefit from the common standards.

“Our suspicion is that for the vast majority of states, it’s going to be a no-brainer that these standards are going to be better than what they’ve got now,” says Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit educational policy group that has been tracking the development of the standards. “Most state standards are abysmal; they’re vague; they’re not very rigorous; and they have a lot of silliness lurking within them.”

Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit education reform group that is working on the national standards project, says most states “are aiming too low, not too high.”

“By moving to common standards, that’s leveling up, and that’s the right way to do it,” says Cohen, who was a former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education during former President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Petrilli criticizes Illinois for reducing the passing score on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test for eighth-grade math in 2006. He says that move made the test easier to pass, and test scores improved as a result.

“Illinois has not been a poster child for rigorous (performance) standards in the past. It’s been one of those states that’s been willing to set the bar very low, even lower with No Child Left Behind, because they didn’t want to make their schools look bad,” Petrilli says.

Vanover says the state reduced the passing score to make it consistent with the scores for the math tests that students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 take. Those passing scores were lower, so the state dropped the eighth-grade math score to match it, he says.

The eighth-grade math scores went up that year, Vanover says, but he adds that scores increased that year for all grades taking the reading and math test. He speculates that a different test format that year — changing from black and white to color and more graphics — might have contributed to the higher scores.

Illinois’ test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to some public school students across the country, mirror the national average in all grade levels, Vanover says.

The proposed national standards include skills and concepts that students should acquire each year in school, but they do not outline a national curriculum.

“That would intrude on the teacher’s ability to make decisions about what tools and resources to use to help students meet the standards,” Linn says.

Critics say the national standards don’t focus enough on academics, favoring instead an approach that teaches life skills such as how to apply academic knowledge to situations.

“Those kinds of skills are nice to have, but the students that do well academically need to have the foundational building blocks in English and mathematics first,” says Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit group that has compared the proposed standards with Massachusetts’ existing ones and determined that the state’s standards are stronger.

Wilhoit disagrees, saying students should know how to apply what they learn.

“What we’re concerned about is both what they know in mathematics and how they can perform if given a real life issue, a challenge, and how they would go back on their mathematics knowledge to solve that challenge,” he says. “To me, I don’t see this as a dichotomy. It’s not either content or skills. It is both.”

The proposed national standards are designed so that students’ knowledge in math and English grows each year and builds upon the skills acquired from the previous year. The English language arts standards cover reading, writing, speaking, listening and language.

Under the proposed English standards, for example, fourth-graders would be expected to explain major differences between poems and prose and refer to the structural elements of poems such as stanza, verse and rhythm. In fifth grade, those same students would be expected to explain major differences between drama and prose stories. They also should be able to refer to the structural elements of drama, ­such as cast of characters, setting descriptions, dialogue, stage directions, acts and scenes, when writing or speaking about specific works of dramatic literature.

The English standards would have kindergartners through fifth-graders reading stories, drama, poetry and informational texts, while students in grades six through 12 would read fiction, poetry, drama and nonfiction, such as speeches, essays and historical documents.

The proposed math standards, for example, would have third-graders develop an understanding of multiplication and division, as well as fractions. They also would work with numbers up to 10,000. By fourth grade, the national standards would have those same students work with numbers up to 100,000 and continue solving problems using multiplication, division and fractions. They also would start to work with decimals.

“The writers worked hard, we worked hard, and I think it’s a good product that came out,” says Christine Fransen, a math teacher at Chicago’s Nicholas Senn High School who served on a committee to review the math standards after they were written. “There might be a little more tweaking that’s needed but not much.”

Sandra Stotsky, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a former education official in that state who oversaw the revision of its academic standards about 10 years ago, says the proposed national English standards are too vague and generic. She suggests the standards include more direction for teachers, such as offering a broad list of authors or kinds of texts that students should read at different grade levels.

“There’s no direction. You’ve just got skills,” she says. Most standards should be considered a curriculum framework, she says, but she believes the proposed national ones fall short of that goal.

She points to a vocabulary section of the English language standards and notes that from grades six through 12, a section on understanding word relationships is the same from year to year and shows no progression for students’ learning.

It would have those students “trace the network of uses and meanings different words have and the interrelationships among those meanings and uses,” and “distinguish a word from other words with similar denotations but different connotations.”

“It’s a lot of high-flown verbiage,” Stotsky says. “No one has bothered to edit it to make it make sense.”

The vocabulary standards would be improved if they outlined types or categories of words to be studied each year, such as synonyms or idioms, she says.

Petrilli says his group reviewed the draft standards and gave the math section a grade of A- and the English language arts section a grade of B.

“We think they’re pretty good,” he says.

Petrilli dismisses the criticisms that there is too much focus on life skills and not enough direction for teachers.

“There’s a lot of good, solid, traditional academic content in this,” he says. He points to the English standards’ appendix, which suggests readings appropriate for various grades that can guide teachers in choosing what to assign.

While states’ adoption of the national standards is voluntary, those that do so by August 2 will get 20 additional points toward their applications for school improvement money from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative. States that signed on to the project to develop the standards will receive another 20 points toward those applications.

Texas and Alaska are the only two states that did not sign on to develop the standards. 

“We felt that it might imply to the Alaskan people that we were already agreeing to adopt the standards, and prior to this, of course, it was always up to Alaskans to decide what the standards were,” says Eric Fry, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. However, he says Alaska officials have been monitoring the project and will consider the final standards after they are released.

DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, says Texas is not interested in adopting the national standards because the state believes its standards are stronger, and it would cost too much money to make the switch.

“We feel it’s best for Texans to determine what Texas students should learn,” she adds.

Massachusetts, the state many involved in writing the standards point to as having high educational standards, also will consider the final version, says Jeff Nellhaus, deputy commissioner of that state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We’re hopeful that the completed documents will meet the standards that we’re looking for in terms of comprehensiveness and clarity and other factors,” Nellhaus says. “At the end of the day, if analysis indicates that they’re significantly different and lower than what we have in hand, we don’t want to take a step backward, obviously.”

Kentucky educators voted to accept the draft standards in February and plan to implement the final version of the standards this fall, says Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. The state acted early because it was time to reassess its standards, and it liked the national ones because they offer more in-depth instruction on topics.

“The teachers won’t feel as if they have to skim quickly through this laundry list of standards,” she says. “They’ll be able to spend more time on things.” 

Koch says he hopes the Illinois State Board of Education votes to adopt the national standards as an emergency rule first so the state meets the August 2 deadline to earn extra points for its Race to the Top application.

That emergency rule would last 150 days, after which the standards would be open to public comment and have to be permanently adopted by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, he says.

Koch hopes the state could fully implement the new standards and have new tests in place by 2013.

The cost to adopt these standards is hard to determine, Koch says. Illinois is seeking about $400 million in federal funds from the Race to the Top program, some of which would be used to train teachers in the new standards, he says. He hopes the state also would save money by sharing resources with other states that adopt the new standards and developing common tests to measure students’ achievement.

If Illinois does not win Race to the Top funds, Koch says he doesn’t think he will find money for teacher training for new standards elsewhere from the state, which he says is expecting thousands of teacher layoffs.

Koch says Illinois won’t have to eliminate all of its current standards if it adopts the national ones.

“There’s a lot of our standards that were good and will be part of the internationally benchmarked standards,” Koch says. “We’re not necessarily starting from scratch.”

Maura Kelly Lannan is a Washington, D.C.-based free-lance writer who previously covered government for the Associated Press in Illinois.

Illinois Issues, June 2010