The District's school system will choose between academic standards used in California and Massachusetts to define what skills and knowledge students in each grade should have, education officials announced yesterday.
The adoption of learning standards comes as the city is preparing to replace the Stanford 9 standardized test this spring with TerraNova, a test that officials said will allow educators to better assess gaps in students' knowledge.
Clifford B. Janey, who last month became the city's fifth school superintendent in nine years, said he will choose between the two states' standards and make a recommendation to the Board of Education by the end of this month. His announcement came at the close of a conference at Georgetown University, at which education experts joined principals and teachers to evaluate the sets of standards for their rigor, clarity and usefulness.
Over time, the new standards will shape how academic subjects are taught and the District's choices in purchasing textbooks and other instructional materials.
The push to adopt grade-by-grade learning standards in each state dates at least to 1983, when a federal report, "A Nation at Risk," warned that the United States was falling behind other countries because of the wide variations in quality in its public education system. The standards movement gained new momentum as a central thrust of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required states and the District to align standards and testing.
The District has such standards in math and English, but has implemented them unevenly and has failed to update them regularly. Arlene Ackerman, who was schools chief from 1998 to 2000, was the District's last superintendent to push to rewrite the standards, but that effort never was completed. A January study by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which advocates for educational standards and accountability, found the District's standards "on average, fair" -- the middle of five categories ranging from "very poor" to "outstanding."
Now, educators in the District plan to scrap an effort to rewrite the standards and instead adopt and modify the widely praised guidelines of California or Massachusetts.
"Rather than start from scratch, in every place that I've gone, we've always taken the very best that's out there and then made it so that it's ours -- customized it so that it fits for us," said Susan Pimentel of StandardsWork Inc., an educational consulting firm.
The Board of Education's president, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, said the conference signals Janey's commitment to addressing the District's academic shortcomings, though she said operational problems loom just as large.
"We are so very excited that this is one of the first things that the superintendent is doing," Cafritz said. "This is the foundation for the house. And we want our kids to go through the roof, but we've got to have the foundation first."
In addition to the new federal requirements, Janey said pressure for new standards comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Last year, 31 percent of District fourth-graders achieved at least a basic level in reading on the annual assessment, and 36 percent in math, compared to the national averages of 62 percent and 76 percent, respectively. Janey has insisted that whatever standards the District adopts must be aligned with the assessment, which will be conducted in February.
Participants in the Georgetown conference -- including several teachers who have won awards for effective classroom instruction -- did not reach a consensus on which state's standards were more suitable for the District, but they agreed that the standards must emphasize depth as well as breadth.
"Coverage is not mastery," said Matt Wennerstein, a teacher at Bell Multicultural Senior High School, noting the long checklists of topics that children are to study.
Others said that without ongoing training and matching instructional materials, new standards are meaningless. "A lot of teachers are going to say: Here we go again, a new set of standards," said Josephine Baker, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, one of two bodies that govern the publicly funded charter schools that have emerged rapidly in the District since 1996.