Changing academic standards to raise the bar for students, teachers

By Dr. Marci Larsen, Superintendent | Feb 13, 2013

There have been a number of efforts to reform public education over the past several years. Standardized tests are one example, as is the development of many different ways of attempting to measure the academic progress of students and of schools. Another recent reform focuses on what is being taught in our classrooms.

Academic standards outline what a 3rd grader should learn in math or what a 9th grader will learn in English. They don’t tell the teacher how to teach, but give the teacher a roadmap of what concepts and subject areas they should cover at certain grades.

The academic standards in Washington are outlined in what are called Grade Level Expectations. Those standards are different from those in California, which are different from those in New York, which are different from those in Florida, and so on.

But, a number of years ago, all of the state governors and the superintendents of public instruction for each of the states decided that schools across the nation should be teaching to the same set of academic standards.

From that decision came a set of standards, called the Common Core State Standards, that have now been adopted by 45 of the states in our country, including Washington. When fully implemented, it will mean that a 7th grader in Massachusetts will be expected to have the same math skills as a 7th grader in Arizona, and the English language arts skills a 2nd grader will learn in Georgia will be the same as he or she would learn in Washington.

In our state, we are now on a path to have the Common Core State Standards in place for math and English language arts at all grades by the 2014-15 school year. That transition is now being undertaken by teachers across the state, and here in the Mukilteo School District.

In some cases, the new standards will be more rigorous than they were in the past because the experts who designed them wanted them to be more aligned with college and work expectations.

Under the new standards in reading, for example, students will spend more time building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts, the kind of material more commonly used by college students and those in the workplace.

One advantage that will result from the new standards will be an improvement in curriculum materials. Producing curriculum that met the needs of 50 different academic standards was a nearly impossible task that resulted in texts that couldn’t fully satisfy anybody. Now, publishers will be able to focus on the same set of standards and produce material that is more effective in the classroom. That also means textbooks will get smaller.

In the years ahead, students will see another byproduct of this change. Washington is a member of a multi-state partnership called SMARTER Balanced Assessment that is developing an assessment system that will measure whether students are meeting the new academic requirements. Students will begin taking this new test in about two years.

Change is never easy, and changing academic requirements is particularly challenging for teachers. Our teachers are professionals, though, and realize the extra work they are now doing to prepare for this change will have value for the students in Mukilteo and across the United States.

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