Md., D.C. poised for common education standards, but not Va.

McDonnell (Jacquelyn Martin - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

For the first time, schools in the District, Maryland and many other states would share a common vision for what students should learn every year in English and math under a proposal released Wednesday that marked a major step toward voluntary national standards.

But Virginia schools would stand apart.

The emergence of what advocates call "common core standards," in a proposal from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, is rapidly splitting state education leaders. Many embrace the initiative as an improvement over homegrown standards that vary in rigor and quality from state to state. In their view, the nation cannot compete with other global economic powers unless schools can agree on how and when to teach such subjects as algebra.

But some -- probably a minority at this point -- say that their state standards are good enough and that replacing them would force a needless and costly overhaul of curriculum, instruction and testing. Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has voiced this argument repeatedly in recent days to explain why the state dropped out of a federal grant competition that had encouraged the common standards movement.

As a result, Virginia's 1.3 million students will probably stick with the state's Standards of Learning in coming years, while about 75,000 students in the District and 840,000 in Maryland will follow the common core.

The governors association and school officers council released the final of five drafts of the common standards Wednesday at a high school in Georgia, with statements of support from Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D). American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten drew a sports analogy in her argument for common standards: "Can you imagine in football if one team got to make a first down after seven yards," she asked, while other teams had to move the ball 10?

The document was developed by educators and academics, drawing on experts from testmakers ACT and the College Board, as well as other organizations. It was circulated repeatedly among states for comment and revision. The federal government played no role in drafting the document, but critics say the Obama administration leaned too heavily on states to participate.

One expert said Virginia is placing too much faith in its math standards. "They're nowhere near as sophisticated and demanding as the common core standards," said William Schmidt, a professor of statistics and education at Michigan State University who helped develop the proposed math standards. Schmidt said Virginia's math standards are not as focused as the common core and leave gaps, such as the study of slope in linear equations in seventh and eighth grades.

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the state's standards work in tandem with detailed curriculum frameworks that guide instruction. He said that the state will review the common core proposal and that officials remain open to revising Virginia's standards in spots. But he said: "Virginia's entire accountability and support system is built on the Standards of Learning. Removing this foundation and replacing it with the common core would disrupt instruction in every school in the commonwealth."

The proposed standards, at, lay out skills and knowledge students should learn from kindergarten through 12th grade. Final revisions, experts said, beefed up algebra expectations for eighth grade and clarified goals for increasing the complexity of reading texts as children grow older. Experts also added references to learning about odd and even numbers and included examples for reading and writing in certain career situations. But for the most part, the standards tracked a draft made public in March.

They now move to states and the District for adoption. The Maryland State Board of Education has endorsed them and expects formal adoption soon. So does the District. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was one of 55 urban education leaders to sign a statement of support for the common core standards organized by the Council of the Great City Schools.

Kentucky in February became the first state to adopt the new standards. Hawaii followed suit last week, and West Virginia is moving in the same direction. The National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Arlington County, projects that a majority of states will adopt the standards by year's end. Massachusetts, with highly regarded standards, expects to decide next month whether to approve the common core. Its action will be closely watched. "We're not taking this decision lightly," said Mitchell Chester, the state's education commissioner.

Texas and Alaska have declined to participate.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement that the standards were "developed by the states, for the states," stressing that the initiative was not led by the federal government. "These standards will help teachers, students and parents know what is needed for students to succeed in college and careers, and will enable states, school districts and teachers to more effectively collaborate to accelerate learning and close achievement gaps nationwide," Duncan said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company