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NCLB Outrages

Vermont Schools Study New Standards

Ohanian Note: I sent an op ed to the Burlington Free Press a couple of weeks ago. It was ignored. This article is classic for what the media does, though it does it in greater depth. Look at the space given to Petrilli to voice the position of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Look at the space given to the State Department of Ed to defend their policies for bowing to Washington D. C. corporate politicos [so they can collect the money].

My research shows that the people journalists are most likely to quote as "experts" on this topic are from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Democrats for Education Reform.

By Molly Walsh

When should children master frequently confused words such as their and there, and too and to?

By third grade, according to the national Common Core school standards adopted recently by Vermont and at least 30 other states. In sometimes excruciating detail, the lengthy document outlines what children should learn from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Supporters say the blueprint for learning is more rigorous than the standards in many states and will better prepare students for college and careers; detractors say the document is another top-down education reform that gives the federal government too much say in local education.

Right or wrong, good or bad, the standards are coming to Vermont.

Vermont schools will be required to give their students a new assessment aligned with the standards by 2015. The new test will be given in more than 30 states and allow state-by-state comparisons of greater detail than the federally administered standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP.)

A new dawn for data

Vermont will dump its current testing regime, the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), in 2013 or 2014. Like the NECAP, the new test will be given in grades three through eight. In high school, it likely will be given at the end of grade 11 rather than the beginning, and there could be some mini-assessments for students in ninth and 10th grades. The federal government will pick up the estimated $160 million tab to develop the new test, to be designed under the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Since the Vermont State Board of Education voted to adopt the standards in August, teachers, parents and students have begun to ask how the standards will change what goes on in the classroom. The answers differ. Schools that have aligned their curriculums with the NECAP and the Vermont Grade Level Expectations that underpin the NECAP shouldn’t need to make dramatic changes, said Michael Hock, Vermont Education Department assessment director.

"There are some differences, but they are not great," he said. "We think that they will be in good stead when these standards come into play in 2013-2014."

Schools that are not well-aligned to Vermont's current standards, or grade-level expectations, might need to make more changes, state officials say. Meanwhile national observers suggest all Vermont schools could be pressured to make changes.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, D.C., issued a report in July saying the Common Core standards are more rigorous than the standards in most of the country, including Vermont. The Fordham report criticized Vermont's current standards in math and English language arts as vague and redundant. The analysis gives the Common Core math standard an A-minus, compared with Vermont’s F; and for English, a B-plus compared with Vermont's D.

The Common Core represents a significant step toward rigor for Vermont, suggested Mike J. Petrilli, vice president for policy at the Fordham Institute. "You look at the Vermont standards, and the biggest problem is just that they are not very detailed and are very vague," Petrilli said.

State education officials support the shift to new standards but don't accept the notion that the current set is dismal. They defend them by pointing to Vermont’s consistently near-the-top scores in the nation on the NAEP. Petrilli responds that although Vermont schools deserve some credit, the state's results are not necessarily proof of a superior educational program. Vermont’s relatively few pockets of deep urban poverty and 96 percent white population are key factors in the state’s performance compared with more diverse states, he said.

"This is largely about demographics," Petrilli said.

Put away the calculators

So what might be coming with the common core?

  • A stronger emphasis on mastery of basic arithmetic and fractions in elementary school, and a focus on memorization and automaticity with math facts over estimation and use of calculators, which are found in many Vermont schools as early as third grade.

  • The standards push for but don't mandate completion of algebra by the end of eighth grade, which some Vermont middle schools strive for more than others. The standards push for all students to complete at least algebra II-level math in high school and could make it more difficult for Vermont students to substitute business math or remedial math for this benchmark. The minimum expectations for high-school math are likely to increase, Hock said: "Students who are now not taking some more-advanced courses will be required to take them."

  • In literacy, the standards emphasize the reading of complex literature and nonfiction and cite studies linking skills in this area to success in college. The difficulty level of books that students read in primary and secondary school has declined, according to studies cited by the authors of the Common Core, and this especially hurts low-income students who need a rich array of reading experiences to make up for knowledge they don’t have access to at home. "There's a real concern that we’re just not asking kids to tackle material that's challenging," Petrilli said.

  • Complex reading is defined to include literary texts with multiple levels of meanings, texts with figurative, ironic and archaic language. "There's a significant focus on increasing text complexity through the grades," said Gail Taylor, Vermont Education Department director of standards and assessment.

  • In writing, the standards emphasize informative, explanatory and narrative writing and place less emphasis on how students feel about a text. "A lot of the writing that we ask kids to do has been 'Tell us about your feelings; tell us about your opinions on something,'" Petrilli said, while the core standards want students to comprehend complex texts and write about them in a meaningful way.

  • The standards don't mandate a reading list, but an appendix offers "examplar texts" by a range of writers, from Ovid to Atul Gawande, the New Yorker magazine writer. Works cited include titles by Voltaire, Shakespeare, Turgenev, Poe, Frost, Yeats, Hawthorne and contemporary writers such as Amy Tan and Vermont's own Julia Alvarez. Although many of these authors already turn up on Vermont middle and high school reading lists, the new standards might make them more prominent fare or make it harder for teachers to squeeze in personal favorites that don't make the list.

  • Nationally, some critics argue the Common Core will have a cookie-cutter effect that American schools, already squeezed by wave after wave of reform including the No Child Left Behind Act, don’t need. The roll-out of a new assessment also could be a source of frustration. For Vermont, the new test would be the third in 16 years. State officials acknowledge these shifts make it difficult to collect meaningful longitudinal data.

    Still, Taylor and others say the benefits outweigh the negatives. She predicts the Common Core standards will leave room for local school decisions. The fact that the new test will be administered via computer and provide near-instant results will allow teachers who now wait months for NECAP data to make prompt adjustments. And even if Vermont were not shifting to a new test, the NECAP would need to be updated and would have grown in different directions, Taylor said.

    Teachers and principals say they are still unpacking the standards. Patrick Burke, principal of South Burlington High School, predicted the new test will help shine light on Vermont’s strong academic performance relative to other states. This could help attract more employers to Vermont and help remind Vermont students they have the stuff it takes to succeed in college.

    Right now, too many Vermont students mistakenly believe they are not college material, Burke said: "What our kids don’t do is go to college at the rate that they should."

    Contact Molly Walsh at mwalsh@burlingtonfreepress.com.

    — Molly Walsh
    Burlington Free Press


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