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Schools prepare for national standards

By Nick Anderson
Monday, January 10, 2011; B01

Maryland and D.C. school officials have agreed to national academic standards and have begun to lay the groundwork for new tests and teacher training. But it will take at least a few years before such measures generate notable change in classrooms.

The movement to adopt common standards swept 40 states and the District last year, a watershed for public education expected to ripple through many aspects of teaching and learning. The standards, spelling out what should be learned in English and math every year from kindergarten through high school, are meant to replace what has been a jumble of benchmarks that vary from state to state in content and depth.

The Center on Education Policy reported last week that many states plan to revise teacher training within the next two years. But in most cases, key measures will not be rolled out until 2013 or later.

"Adopting the standards was difficult for a number of states," said Jack Jennings, president of the policy center and a former Democratic congressional aide. "They were worried about the politics. But they sailed past all that. There doesn't seem to be much backtracking. The states made the commitment, and it seems as if they're going to stick with it."

The standards were sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with financial support from private charities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Obama administration encouraged the development of the standards but did not directly fund it.

Some analysts had predicted the movement would generate an outcry because of the nation's tradition of local control of education.

But there has been little backlash to the national standards as they begin to take root - with some exceptions, such as Virginia and other states that have not approved them.

D.C. and Maryland school officials adopted the standards last year and won major school reform grants from the federal government to help carry them out.

The District's share from the $4 billion Race to the Top contest is $75 million. Maryland's is $250 million.

In addition, Maryland and D.C. officials are among the leaders of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

The group, which has about $185 million in federal funding, plans to establish a common testing system for the city and two dozen states by 2014, centered on the new standards.

That means big changes are coming for hundreds of thousands of students and their teachers, who are accustomed to the Maryland School Assessments, given every year since 2003, and the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, begun in 2006.

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said talks on the design of the new tests are underway. Unlike the MSA, which gives schools a snapshot of achievement, the new system is expected to measure student progress quarterly.

The tests "are not going to be narrow," Grasmick said. "They can be used for real instructional purposes, and in a timely way. You won't have to wait until the end of the year to find out if the kids got it."

Richard Pohlman, acting director of the D.C. Race to the Top program, said city officials also are deeply involved in test development. "We're out in front," he said. "We are ahead of the curve and engaged in every decision regarding the new assessments."

Even before the new tests are launched, Pohlman said, officials will work to tailor the DC-CAS exams to the national standards starting in spring 2012.

This spring, Pohlman said, D.C. officials also will launch an outreach campaign. "We're going to engage the public in what is the new common core - what are these new standards and how they will affect our students," he said. "We will be talking to teachers, and we need to talk to parents."

In Maryland, Grasmick said, officials plan to hold training sessions in the summer for administrators and select teachers from every school.

The state also has asked experts to analyze its current curriculum to find points in which it varies from the standards.

For instance, Maryland schools teach algebra and data analysis in the same year, Grasmick said, but those two topics are not linked as tightly in the new standards.

"There's a lot of synergy between the common core standards and what we have," Grasmick said, "but there definitely were changes."

The Center on Education Policy found in a survey that 30 states aim to create or revise teacher evaluation systems to hold educators accountable for student achievement on the standards.

If that occurs, standards could influence whether teachers are promoted or, in some places, how much they are paid. In addition, 25 states plan to take measures to ensure the standards are "fully implemented" in the lowest-performing schools.

The Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of civil rights organizations, said the survey underscores that minority students must benefit from the standards movement.

If those students aren't explicitly targeted for aid, the coalition said, "this movement will do little to address the dropout crisis and close the achievement gap."

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