Schools Face Challenge Of Adopting National Standards

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Payson schools will soon face yet another revolution in the frustrating, sometimes bewildering effort to figure out whether students are learning what they need to know to succeed, Superintendent Casey O’Brien told the school board on Monday.

The district continues to inch ever closer to adopting national standards for what students should know at each grade level — which makes the district ever more in thrall to standardized testing.

However, O’Brien said the latest shift toward new national standards actually represents an effort to ensure students know how to think — not just fill out multiple choice questionnaires.

“The new standards focus on more complex reasoning skills,” O’Brien told the board.

Board member Barbara Shepherd said the current system has produced far too many students lacking basic, crucial skills.

She said that in her job with the courts, she often reads statements written by witnesses and jurors. “They were terrible. Am I expecting too much for students to write a complete sentence without spelling errors?”

O’Brien noted that the AIMS graduation test originally included essays and writing samples, but has devolved until about half of the test consists of multiple choice questions.

“Do you see writing skills deteriorating because of computers — so students get lazy?” asked board member Kim Pound.

O’Brien said that the shift to standardized tests and multiple choice measurements of knowledge had undercut an emphasis on higher level skills, like writing and critical thinking.

“Those things we’re weak in as a country. You want to see them writing effectively in every content area” from science to social studies.

The average U.S. student falls in the middle of the pack when compared to students from other countries, especially on measurements of critical thinking, according to various international comparisons. However, the top U.S. schools, often in districts with many wealthy, well-educated parents, generally do well compared to the top students internationally. Unfortunately, Payson’s share of low-income students has risen dramatically as a result of the recession, with the number of kids eligible for free and reduced school lunches doubling. Generally, family income and the education level of the parents plays the dominant role in test scores, regardless of what schools students attend.

Payson High School Vice Principal Anna Van Zile has served on a national steering committee to help develop standards that for the first time will allow educators to make direct comparisons of student skills from one state to another.

O’Brien noted that some districts will be field-testing the new common core standards and tests to measure students’ mastery of those concepts next year. By 2014, most of the nation’s schools will be introducing those new standards and by 2015, they’ll be held accountable for whether students can perform to those standards.

“The good thing about all of this is that it’s not being imposed overnight,” said O’Brien. “We’ve seen that so often in the past, with very little preparation for the teachers.”

He guided the school board through a Power Point presentation with a brief summary of the shift in the standards, with a national benchmark for what students should master at each grade level.

For instance, elementary school students should have a “solid foundation” in whole numbers, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals. Come middle school, students should tackle geometry, algebra, probability and statistics. That should leave students free to focus on higher level skills involving algebra, calculus and mathematics-based thinking and analysis.

The developing standards offer exacting details concerning what students should learn in each grade. For instance, in grade three, students should be able to read a story and describe the character and motivations of the people in that story. By seventh-grade, they should be able to analyze how the various elements of the story like character, setting and plot interact. By grade 12, they should be able to evaluate the characters’ actions, identify the areas the text leaves uncertain and analyze the interaction of complex ideas.

However, the great dilemma of most reform movements remains unresolved at the heart of the latest rush to adopt new standards.

The state and federal governments have offered one reform after another, most of them accompanied by standardized tests to determine how students in one school stack up against a national standard. However, it’s much easier to administer a multiple choice test of basic skills and vocabulary than to test higher level skills like critical thinking and writing.

As a result, the emphasis on multiple choice tests of basic knowledge have often crowded not only efforts to measure higher level intellectual skills, but time in the school day for music, art and electives that studies have shown connect directly to overall student achievement.

The attempt by state and federal governments to reward schools whose students have done well on those standardized tests has only underscored the problem, often imposing serious financial penalties on schools that don’t focus on ensuring that the weakest students do well on standardized tests.

For instance, educators fear that the standards imposed by the national No Child Left Behind will result in the application of a “failing” label on almost every school in the country. Meanwhile, the Arizona Board of Education is on the brink of imposing a system that will grade every school in the state from “D” to “A,” depending mostly on student test scores — especially for the lowest-performing students. The state held up release of the first round of ratings when it turned out that 59 percent of the schools in the state would get a “D” or a “C.”

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