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CDE: Colo. standards are rigorous as common core

The State Board of Education Wednesday was assured that Colorado’s content standards for language arts and math are as rigorous as the proposed national Common Core Standards in those subjects.

And, adopting the common core may be as simple as adding parts of those documents to state standards, a consultant and Department of Education officials said.

The board was briefed by education Commissioner Dwight Jones and other CDE staff about line-by-line comparisons of the common core and the state standards, which were adopted only last December. Reviews were done by an outside consultant and state content subcommittees.

The core standards were developed under the leadership of the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But, the U.S. Department of Education has made adoption of the standards an eligibility requirement for the second round of Race to the Top grants.

Board members asked how the two sets of standards compared in their rigor. “On the whole … it’s almost a wash,” said Stanley Rabinowitz, a consultant for the education research agency WestEd. While there’s variation in some individual standards, “I’d say there’s equal rigor across the two documents,” he added.

Jo O’Brien, CDE assistant commissioner of standards and assessment, said, “It’s almost a draw.”

The board met on the same day that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued its comparison of the common core with individual standards in all 50 states. Fordham judged Colorado’s language arts standards as equal to the common core but ranked state math standards as considerably less rigorous than the proposed national set.

Board members also asked what exactly adopting the common standards would mean.

Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, asked if adoption would mean the state would “in no way … be watering down the Colorado standards.”

Rabinowitz said that if parts of the common standards were added to state documents, “You’re probably making the standards more rigorous in some cases.”

Berman wanted reassurance that merely adding sections of the national standards to Colorado’s would constitute adoption. “That is correct,” said O’Brien, an answer affirmed by Jones.

Rabinowitz said, “No one has fully defined what adoption means or what 15 percent means.” (The 15 percent reference is to the federal requirement that a state’s standards can’t deviate more than 15 percent from the common core.) O’Brien said there’s about 90 percent overlap between the two sets of standards.

Rabinowitz explained to the board that the comparison “was a very difficult study to do” because in many places the common standards are much more detailed than Colorado’s. “There are parts of the common core standards that read much more like curriculum than standards.”

O’Brien noted that Colorado’s “standards are an expectation of what students should know and be able to do at the end of good curriculum,” not a detailed list of what students should be taught throughout a school year.

The Fordham study judged the common standards, which were released in final form last month, to be “clearer and more rigorous than today’s [language arts] standards in 37 states and today’s math standards in 39 states. … In 33 of those states, the Common Core bests both ELA and math standards.”

In Fordham’s rating system, the language arts common core got a B+, 6 out of 7 points for rigor and content and 2 out of 3 points for clarity and specificity. Colorado’s marks were identical. (California topped the charts with an A, a 7 and a 3.)

“In sum, these standards represent a very thorough and rigorous set of expectations for the students in Colorado. Some streamlining and editing to exclude nonacademic and unrealistic goals would improve them tremendously, but as written, they earn a solid six points out of seven for Content and Rigor,” the Fordham report said the Colorado’s language arts standards.

In math, the common core scored an A-, a 7 and a 2, but Colorado was graded as only a C, a 3 and a 2. (California was the top scorer again.)

“With their grade of C, Colorado’s mathematics standards are mediocre, while those developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative earn an impressive A-minus. The CCSS math standards are significantly superior to what the Centennial State has in place today,” the Fordham report argued.

O’Brien attributed Fordham’s math critique to a particular “point of view” that prefers a more detailed, curricular style of math standards than Colorado’s document, which emphasizes student end-of-year competencies. A memo prepared by CDE math content specialist Melissa Colsman concluded that Fordham “overlooked” or “misunderstood” elements of Colorado’s math standards.

(See the Fordham study’s contents page, executive summary and Colorado analysis, plus links to articles about common standards issues.)

Just over half the states have adopted the common standards. Massachusetts’ state board approved them Wednesday, despite an opposition campaign by some conservative think tanks.

The SBE meets on Aug. 2 to hear Jones’ recommendation and to vote on adoption. The commissioner seemed to make a point of reminding the board that Colorado has had a very open process for reviewing the common standards and the final decision hasn’t been made.

However, Colorado officials have been heavily involved in the common standards development process, including review of earlier drafts, something Jones and O’Brien also brought up at Wednesday’s meeting.

The department is accepting public comment on the proposed standards until July 28. (Go here to send an e-mail.) About 420 comments have been received so far.