Minnesota educators say no to joining the crowd
Okay, regard this as a pale Yahoo! It's hard to jump up and down in joy for people who want more rigor. But standing up for local decision-making is certainly a whole lot better than what most people chasing the money are doing.
Minnesota breaks with much of the rest of the country and decides against adopting national standards to measure student achievement.
By Megan Boldt
While more than three dozen states are prepared to adopt voluntary national standards for K-12 education, Minnesota is holding out ΓΆ€” at least on math.
The state's educators and lawmakers say the national standards are lacking, education should be controlled locally and the time frame for switching to national standards is too short.
But by opting out, Minnesota is giving up federal money to measure student achievement.
The U.S. Education Department is offering about $350 million to help develop tests ΓΆ€” but only for states that adopt the national standards by the end of 2011.
"Sure, it's about the money, but it's more so losing out on access to better tests," said Kent Pekel, president of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota. "These tests are really expensive to do. And that's why I think the feds put money into this because they didn't think the states would do it on their own."
About 40 states have adopted, or are poised to adopt, the Common Core State Standards, a project of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The goal is to replace a patchwork of academic standards that vary wildly across the country with a uniform set of expectations for what students should learn in English and math each year from kindergarten through high school.
Minnesotans' main gripe is with the national math standards, which they say are no match for current state standards that are clear and rigorous and were developed by local math experts.
Ellen Delaney, associate principal at Spring Lake Park High School and a former math teacher, said a group of well-educated people who have been working with standards for years took a look at the national math standards and had a hard time understanding exactly what students were supposed to master. And if it wasn't clear to them, she said, it sure wasn't going to be clear to teachers, parents or students.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said something similar in a June letter to a consortium that supports the national standards. He wrote that Minnesota is not willing to commit to the math standards at this point because they "did not meet our expectations."
Delaney said she knows people in Minnesota's "assessment community" ΓΆ€” those who develop and administer tests to measure students' progress ΓΆ€” are frustrated.
"And they should be, given resources are hard to come by during these times," Delaney said. "But on the other hand, the number of resources it would take to get teachers to understand the standards, it would be enormous."
Minnesota will use the Common Core English language arts standards as a base when state standards are rewritten this year, said Karen Klinzing, the state's deputy education commissioner.
Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, chairman of the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee, said local school leaders and lawmakers were concerned about people outside Minnesota driving the state's standards.
"A number of us from both parties are leery of giving up power to the federal government," Mariani said.
Klinzing said the state education department doesn't even have the authority to revise math standards until the 2015-16 school year without approval from the Legislature.
"For Minnesota, I think it felt rushed," she said.
"We didn't want to do anything that was irresponsible," Mariani said. "There was a desire for more deliberate and careful consideration of the proposal."
Minnesota students have some of the highest test scores and graduation rates in the nation. But one education research group in Washington, D.C., argues Minnesota's standards aren't better than the national ones ΓΆ€” they're lower.
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which supports national standards, graded Minnesota's English and math standards lower than Common Core standards in a report released in July.
In English, it gave Minnesota's standards a C and national standards a B-plus. In math, it gave Minnesota a B and the national standards an A-minus.
The report found Minnesota's English standards "mediocre," sometimes vague and lacking some critical content areas. Reading standards fail to name specific authors or works that students should read, the report said; and some requirements ΓΆ€” particularly vocabulary ΓΆ€” expect students to master material that is never outlined in the standards themselves.
For example, the report said, sixth-grade students are supposed to employ knowledge of Latin and Greek roots, but none of the standards for kindergarten through fifth-grade mentions learning those roots.
The report also says the development of arithmetic in Minnesota's math standards is not rigorous enough, and "calculators and other technology appear too frequently in the standards."
The high school content also is missing some STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)-ready material, including more advanced content for trigonometry, series and logarithms, the report said.
Klinzing said the national standards are challenging but at times are so specific they almost tell teachers how to teach. That doesn't play well in Minnesota, she said.
"We try to ensure that our standards are specific enough to assess, but not too specific that it dictates the curriculum," Klinzing said.
Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Foundation, argues that if standards are vague, some students may not be exposed to rigorous material.
"Just saying that kids have to read one piece of Shakespeare doesn't tell teachers how to teach Shakespeare," Petrilli said.
SO WHICH WAY?
Minnesota could have adopted the national standards and augmented them with items specific to the state to make them more rigorous, the U's Pekel suggested. He noted that Massachusetts, a state whose students consistently score higher than Minnesota's on national and international tests, has said yes to the national standards.
"I think if states like Massachusetts were able to work through these issues, we should be able to work through them as well," Pekel said. "If not, is that still a sufficient reason in and of itself to stay out of this?"
Pekel explained that better testing can be computer-based and adaptive, meaning the level of difficulty is adjusted depending on the student's answers. He said such tests require students to engage in higher-order critical thinking and problem solving, which is not the case for most of the state's multiple-choice tests.
In Minnesota, only the science test is adaptive and asks students to interact with onscreen items, such as graphs. Pekel said that test has drawn praise from the national assessment community for Minnesota and its assessment director.
But developing cutting-edge testing is expensive.
"The quality of the test is so important. It's really complicated, sophisticated, hard work," Pekel said. "It just seems like an area (in which) we would really benefit from additional resources from outside of Minnesota."
Spring Lake Park principal Delaney said that five years ago she never thought she could support national standards. But now, she realizes individual states are having a tough time finding the time and money to individually develop standards and assessment.
"National standards do make sense," Delaney said. "I hope at some point they will be written well enough so we can embrace them."
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