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Are new education standards creating standard students?

kids-learningAfter the Missouri State Board of Education presented new Missouri Learning Standards this spring, Governor Jay Nixon signed them [Missouri House Bill 1490] into law.

Chosen by Missourians for Missouri schools, the standards change the way English, math, science and social studies [history, government] will be taught.

Considered a process bill, HB 1490 is controlled by the state, which means that, when applicable, adjustments can be made based on feedback from stakeholders. In addition, the public was invited to play a role in determining HB 1490 by attending one of three public hearings and submitting comments.

Implementation of the standards is already in effect, although Sarah Potter, communications coordinator for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE], said it will be an ongoing process this school year to incorporate them into curriculum.

“How they approach the teaching is left at the control of the individual school or district. Curriculum will be rewritten gradually and updated assessments will be created to match these standards,” Potter explained.

The assessments are governed under the Missouri Assessment Program, known as MAP testing, required each spring in third through eighth grade. MAP seeks to measure the mastery of English/language arts, mathematics and science through standardized, formative testing. English and math are tested annually, while science is assessed in fifth and eighth grades. The new MAP tests, which will evaluate the new standards, will begin spring 2018.

At the high school level, MAP testing looks very different. End-Of-Course [EOC] exams are administered to students in the content areas of algebra I, biology, English II and U.S. Government prior to graduation. The purposes of the MAP EOC assessments are to measure student post-secondary readiness; identify student strengths and weaknesses; serve as the basis of state and national accountability plans; and evaluate teaching programs. The tests are administered when a student completes the respective course during his or her high school career.

DESE uses these scores for federal and Missouri school improvement purposes. If student scores are returned in time, they also are included as a small part of the student’s semester grades.

Potter said, “While the assessments are part of the graduation requirement for Missouri schools, failing an assessment will not affect diploma eligibility.”

How did we get here?

HB 1490 is a direct offshoot of the Common Core State Standards, which were adopted by Missouri legislators in 2010 and sought to standardize educational benchmarks throughout the nation. Common Core immediately came under fire by groups who feared that the national guidelines would remove local control of education.

In 2014, Rep. Kurt Bahr [R-O’Fallon] introduced a bill that sought to create new Missouri education standards based on the recommendations of parents and educators. While the goal of HB 1490 was to replace Common Core, Bahr, in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in June 2015, said that his “crusade against Common Core was never against the standards per se,” rather “it was more of a state sovereignty issue.”

“We lost state control of education,” Bahr said at the time. “It was ‘whose’ standards they were, not ‘what’ standards they were.”

So it should come as no surprise that the new state standards are not so very different from those set forth under Common Core.

The eight work groups, which were established in 2014 by the Missouri Board of Education to develop the new standards, consisted of approximately 16 people in each group.

The work groups included a cross-section of state education associations and leaders, legislators, the governor and lieutenant governor, and parents with children in the public school sector.

Proponents said HB 1490 gave the state a process to develop the standards with parents represented as stakeholders; something Anne Gassel said was definitely missing in the past. Gassel, who co-founded the Missouri Coalition Against Common Core with Mary Byrne, served in the 6-12 math group. With two children in the public school system, she began researching the topic and connecting with other concerned citizens through her education watch group.

Will the average person notice any changes between the two?

“Parents who have followed Common Core and the learning standards will know and see the changes that will be taking place over the next few years,” Gassel said. “But, there is a not a hard whiplash effect because there aren’t a lot of changes, except for the science and social studies content, where there is a bigger sweep.”

According to Potter, the idea is to move away from rote memorization of facts and traditional textbooks and toward application-based approaches using scientific process and research or a hands-on approach. In social studies, there is a move toward critical reading, writing and research. Missouri history is moving back to third instead of fourth grade, which will allow the teaching of economics and government in the fourth grade.

The English/language arts standards emphasize using research in writing at the elementary level. Potter also noted that, with technology, there is a greater focus on keyboarding skills instead of  traditional handwriting, although cursive writing has been added back into the new state standards.

While some parents, students and educators argue that cursive is no longer relevant, Gassel does not agree.

“There is something about slowing down and going back to the basics,” Gassel said. “My eighth-grade daughter was required to write an essay in cursive. It’s an important, forgotten skill.”

Acknowledging that technology is always changing, Gassel also cautioned that “as voice recognition technology improves, keyboarding may become irrelevant in everyday use.”

Change for the sake of change?

Education is no stranger to change.

The bipartisan Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] was created 50 years ago as “the nation’s national education law and longstanding commitment to equal opportunity for all students.” However, since its inception, countless educational programs have come down the pike. In recent years, the No Child Left Behind Act and Common Core have taken center stage.

While the argument can be made that government must get involved to support and guide our local schools, Weldon Springs resident Jim Griesemer disagrees. In the ‘90s, he co-founded the St. Charles Co. Citizens for Excellence in Education watch group. A longtime concerned citizen, he first voiced his concerns to the Francis Howell School District’s Board of Education while his daughter was a student. Now, with a grandson beginning school, he said he has renewed concern.

“The U.S. Department of Education would like us to believe that this [Common Core and other outcome-based education programs] is all grassroots, along with some philanthropic organizations and experts and masterminds who designed the whole thing,” Griesemer said, “but given the ubiquitous nature of the federal government and the National Education Association, it won’t be long before all schools will be marching in locked step.”

The cumulative effect, according to Griesemer, is creating cookie-cutter kids who are, in fact, “common to the core.”

“We are no longer giving our kids the ability to think independently for themselves. They are told how and what to think,” Griesemer said. But Potter says common standards are doing more good than harm. She noted that in years past “50 states produced 50 standards with radically different expectations.”

“The Common Core methodology helps bridge those differences,” she said.

Still, Potter said there is the need to return to some basic skills and many of the  new standards are doing just that.

“In math, a concerted effort to fix the K-3 standards with an extensive focus on number sets and introducing algebraic concepts was included,” Potter added. The end goal is not just to get the right answer, but to understand the process.

Potter said Missouri always has been high on the spectrum in terms of academic rigor. The new  Missouri Learning Standards are aimed at keeping the bar set high. But Gassel cautioned, “Ultimately, parents are responsible for their child’s education. They have to be the mediator and the advocate.”

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