Students Face New Learning Standards

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006

Students returning to school Monday will get the first taste of the D.C. school system's new science and social studies learning standards, which are aimed at immediately introducing more rigor into the classroom and ultimately new textbooks, standardized tests and even upgraded science labs.

The learning standards, outlining what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, are among many new policies and initiatives slated to be launched this year. The changes, school officials say, are intended to boost student achievement, increase the level of parental involvement in the schools and improve efficiency for teachers and administrators.

Students this year also will be offered an expanded array of enrichment programs, giving them more opportunities to participate in math and chess clubs and polish their academic skills after school and during holiday breaks. The school system will open the first three of five planned resource centers for parents, offering them such services as job training and courses on improving their children's achievement.

And, in an attempt to reduce the dropout rate, ninth-graders for the first time will be required to devise graduation plans outlining a schedule for completing their studies.

Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is seeking to begin Phase 2 of his plan to overhaul instruction, introducing new science and social-studies standards for students in kindergarten to grade 12. Last year, in Phase 1, the system introduced new reading and math standards, reading and math textbooks and a new assessment aligned to the new materials.

As required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, students will be tested on the new science and social-studies standards in 2007-08. They will not receive new science and social-studies textbooks until fall 2007. School officials are giving themselves a year to order all the textbooks, attempting to avoid last year's fiasco, when a late spring order triggered significant delays -- in some cases up to three months -- at numerous schools.

The new science standards, modeled on those from Indiana, will focus more on experiments and hands-on learning, replacing the existing standards that emphasize book learning. The new science standards, according to school officials, will not teach creationism.

Michael Kaspar, the system's director of science, said the lessons will incorporate more outdoor activities, field trips and experts such as biologists who study the Chesapeake Bay.

Science instruction will be more "self-learning, self-exploration," said Chief Academic Officer Hilda L. Ortiz, adding that students will do more "testing their own theories."

The social-studies standards, adapted from those in Massachusetts and California, will emphasize geography and world history. Schools will phase in classroom changes over the next few years.

In acknowledgment of the significance of international events, 10th-graders this year will begin focusing on modern world history rather than ancient world history. "Globalization is here. Our kids have to be able to understand the larger world community," said Jesse Nickelson, social studies coordinator.

In the next few years, secondary schools will concentrate more on geography, Nickelson said. In the ninth grade, students will take world history and geography separately rather than as a combined course. D.C. history will be moved from the ninth to 12th grade.

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