Proposed National Academic Standards Sidestep Debate

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009 11:59 AM

The opening of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel lecture. Walt Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" The Declaration of Independence. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

Those were among a handful of texts chosen to illustrate proposed standards for skills and knowledge that every high school graduate should have in English language arts.

And that should be the cue for another "Great Works" debate. Every so often, educators, politicians, parents, students and anyone else who cares about schools will tussle over lists of works deemed essential (or not) for a culturally literate young adult. It gets especially fierce when the nation's academic reputation is perceived to be at stake.

But not this time. At least not yet.

So far, there has been no uproar about texts included in (or omitted from) the standards experts proposed last month at the behest of the nation's governors and state school chiefs. That's by design. A full-blown Great Works debate could scuttle what is already a difficult mission: to craft academic standards that can be accepted nationwide without leaving the impression that states and school boards have ceded control of what gets taught in the classroom.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, as it is known, is an attempt to fashion de facto national standards for math and English without calling them that. President Obama praises it as an effort to raise what are now wildly uneven benchmarks from state to state. His administration might provide money to help states develop tests aligned with the standards -- if they are adopted. But the Education Department is not drafting the standards, and Congress will have no vote on approval.

The proposal released Sept. 21 represents the first stage. In coming months, experts will work backward through secondary and elementary grades to develop more detailed benchmarks for skills and knowledge. The goal is to lay out enough specifics to fulfill the promise for internationally competitive standards, without being so voluminous and prescriptive that states and schools have no flexibility in choosing textbooks and curriculum.

Academics and others are weighing in on the proposal posted at On Thursday, the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a prominent advocate of more rigorous standards, graded the effort with a B in both subjects. That was equivalent to the grade it gave the National Assessment of Educational Progress standards in reading and writing and better than the C it gave NAEP standards in math. NAEP, a federally funded testing program, is often called the nation's report card.

The math proposal spans equations, expressions, functions, statistics and several other topics. For instance, it says students should understand four core concepts about equations and be able to exercise six core skills.

One such concept: That equations not solvable in one number system may have solutions in a larger number system. One such skill: Graphing the solution set of a linear inequality in two variables on the coordinate plane.

The English proposal avoided controversy by emphasizing four communication skills -- reading, writing, speaking and listening -- and eschewing recommendations on must-read books. The experts said that should be left to states.

"They were wise to leave it to others," said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Fordham Institute. "They would have gotten into a century-long battle over reading lists, multiculturalism, which authors to read and so on. They decided to duck that."

Among the English proposals, students should be able to:

*In reading, support or challenge assertions about a text by citing evidence in the text explicitly and accurately.

*In writing, support and illustrate arguments and explanations with relevant details, examples and evidence; and

*In speaking, make strategic use of multimedia elements and visual displays of data to gain audience attention and enhance understanding.

The works by Austen, Morrison, Whitman and King were cited in the standards as "exemplars of reading text complexity" -- a conclusion not likely to be disputed.

But so were excerpts from the New York Times, from the 19th century in print and from the 21st century on the Web; from a college-level biology textbook; from a business memorandum on employee medical coverage; and from an economic analysis associated with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

"While no sampling can do justice to the numerous ways in which different authors craft complex prose, as a collection the exemplar texts . . . illustrate the level of complexity that college- and career-ready students should be able to handle independently by the end of high school," authors of the English proposal wrote.

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