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SBE gives final OK to new standards

The State Board of Education Thursday passed a major milestone with unanimous approval of new academic content standards in more than a dozen major subject areas.

The standards, which ultimately will replace – and add to – a set that’s more than a decade old, will be the main foundation for the remaining tasks of the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids education reform program.

The only time-consuming discussions were over parts of the health and physical education standards. Members wordsmithed language about teaching 8th graders how to resist sexual pressures (the standards include both abstinence and contraception) and made some other tweaks, a process that took awhile but wasn’t substantive.

Elaine Gantz Berman. D-1st District, said, “This is historic for the state of Colorado. … This is the first time the state of Colorado has ever had a health standard. … I might even cry.” Gantz Berman has made school and child health issues a major focus of her work.

The seven members of the board also gave unanimous approval, with modest or no discussion and no or minor amendments, to standards for dance; drama and theater arts; math; music; reading, writing and communicating; science; social studies; visual arts, and world language.

Randy DeHoff, R-6th District and a former aerospace engineer, commented that it was
“great” the science standards were developed and adopted so smoothly, “given the difficulty places like Texas and Kansas have had in adopting science standards.” Science standards in those states have become culture-war flashpoints over such issues as evolution.

DeHoff also questioned, mildly, why history, civics, political science and economics were lumped together in one collection of social studies standards while several arts subjects have separate standards, some quite lengthy. “I’m just afraid we may be overdoing it on the arts somewhat.”

Member Jane Goff, D-7th District and a former foreign language teacher, spoke in English and then French to move adoption of the world languages standard – after pausing for a moment to mentally compose her French.

The board also approved standards for English language development, which affect students for whom English is not their first language. Those standards are different in format from the others because they really outline proficiencies rather than content, and board members struggled a bit over how to classify those before adopting them.

Passage of each standard was greeted by applause from the CDE staffers in the audience, the people who did the hard work on the documents over the last year.

Marcia Neal, R-3rd District, reflecting on long things can take in education, called the standards revision “a real historic thing,” given that the whole process only took about a year.

Board members received the standards at their November meeting, held a public hearing then and have “discussed” changes and tweaks over the last month using an online tool.

The standards aren’t curriculum or lists of facts students are supposed to know. Rather, they lay out “The few, crucial concepts and skills students need to have mastered by the end of each grade,” in the words of a Department of Education document.

The new standards are required by the 2008 law that mandates an overall reform of the state’s education system through updating of standards, statewide tests and then curricula and high school graduation requirements.

So, while the standards by themselves may seem opaque to all but professional educators, they will lay the groundwork for what’s taught in classrooms and required for high school graduation in the future.

The new standards, at least in some subjects, won’t take practical effect until sometime in 2012, when new statewide tests that are aligned to the standards will be ready. The only subjects currently subject to testing are reading, writing, math and science. It’s not known if the assessment review process will recommend standardized tests in additional subjects, although that’s considered unlikely because of the potential costs. (The state board has a December 2010 deadline to adopt a new testing system.)

The key difference from current standards is that the new ones are designed to be “fewer, clearer and higher,” include 21st century skills and incorporate descriptions of both school readiness and college and workforce readiness, in addition to emphasizing concepts and skills, not just facts.

The standards were designed “backwards,” starting with the skills and competencies high school graduates should have. In most cases specific standards for student skills in each grade were then designed down the ladder to kindergarten. Previous state standards applied to spans of multiple grades.

As an example, the standards for Reading, Writing and Communicating set four broad standards – oral expression and listening; reading for all purposes; writing and composition, and research and reasoning. The standards then lay out the specific skills in each of the four areas that students should demonstrate in each grade.

While the state board and CDE already had begun work to update the state’s standards, passage of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (Senate Bill 08-212) in 2008 provided a hard push for writing new ones.

The CAP4K law set in motion a multi-year process of creating descriptions of both school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness, adoption of the new standards and adoption of the new statewide testing system by the end of 2010.

After that, individual school districts will have to adopt standards at least as rigorous as the state’s, retool their curricula to teach those standards and adopt new high school graduation standards as necessary.

So, the whole new system won’t be implemented in the state’s classrooms until 2012.

There’s also an ongoing process to create a national set of common core standards in English and math.

That voluntary effort, of which Colorado is a part, is being pushed by the National Governors Association.

While CAP4K is intended to be a thorough reform of Colorado’s education system and to make every high school graduate ready for college, specialized training or work, it’s by no means clear if it will achieve those goals or how it will change the state’s classrooms.

Many observers believe that CAP4K will have an impact only if it’s effectively implemented through teacher training, appropriate class materials and other changes at every school. Implementation will cost the state and school districts money, which is tight now. A CAP4K cost study is just getting underway by a private consultant, and its first report won’t be made until next March.

Text of standards and more information

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