Editor’s Note: Bangor Daily News reporter Susan Young received a fellowship from the Education Writers Association to study efforts to boost academic standards in the nation’s schools. She focused on three states — Maine, Kentucky and Virginia. This is the third in a four-part series about what she found.
Forty years ago, a young Angus King learned “some of the best lessons in life” at the Douglas MacArthur School in Alexandria, Va.
Today, “Gus” is the governor of Maine. He may have shed his nickname but he is still learning lessons from his elementary alma mater. King says he wants tough academic standards for all public schools in Maine. He says he wants clear standards, like those in Virginia, that are easily understood by parents, employers and educators. He says he wants standards like those that have become part of the daily routine at the red brick school on placid Janneys Lane in the historic Washington, D.C., suburb.
Last year, MacArthur Elementary incorporated Virginia’s highly touted Standards of Learning into its curriculum. The standards did not revolutionize education at the school, which teaches nearly 450 youngsters of varied ethnic and financial backgrounds. Instead, they brought accountability and consistency into the kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms.
“It makes us more accountable,” said Susan McGregor, a third- and fourth-grade teacher. She said the standards have not changed what she does in her classroom. Instead they serve as a checklist of what needs to be covered by the end of the year.
On an October afternoon, McGregor’s fourth-grade social studies class is learning about Virginia history. Teams of pupils paste historical events, like the writing of the Declaration of Independence, under pictures of the appropriate Virginian, in this case Thomas Jefferson.
Mentally, at least, McGregor can check off history standard 4.3, which deals with prominent Virginians during the Revolutionary War era.
Earlier in the day, pupils in McGregor’s third-grade reading class flipped through the pages of junior dictionaries to look up words on their vocabulary lists. If they couldn’t find the words in the small dictionaries, they were encouraged to look in other sources such as a larger dictionary or the encyclopedia.
Check off English standard 3.10, which says pupils will record information from dictionaries, encyclopedias and other reference books.
“I’m very satisfied with the Standards of Learning,” said Carol Smith, who has taught in Alexandria for 28 years. But, she added, the standards have not really altered her third- and fourth-grade classroom.
“We have always covered the basics,” she said. “The standards haven’t changed what we do. Now we just check off what we’ve done.”
A look at standards
Academic standards are not new in Virginia. The Standards of Learning were first put in place in 1981 and revised in 1988. Former Democratic Gov. Douglas Wilder tried to revise them again in 1992 but his efforts were decried as vague and touchy-feely by conservative Christian groups, and he scrapped the plan.
As governors in many other states have done recently, Gov. George Allen, a Republican, pledged to set high academic standards that will prepare Virginia’s students for the next century. But unlike other governors, Allen and his conservative cronies developed clear, concise, easy-to-understand standards that are highly regarded throughout the country.
While other states, like Maine, have developed standards that require students to “understand and demonstrate a sense of what numbers mean,” Virginia’s Standards of Learning say simply that in first grade, pupils will be able to add and subtract single-digit numbers and count — by twos, fives and 10s — to 100. Virginia shunned the vague, jargon-laden concepts of its old Standards of Learning in favor of more straightforward, clear-cut standards in four core subject areas — history and social studies, English, math and science.
Other states, including Maine, have grouped their standards by grade clusters. Virginia, instead, chose to detail what students should learn at each grade level, with the standards growing increasingly difficult. For example, a kindergarten history standard requires that pupils be exposed to interesting Americans in history such as George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln and Davy Crockett. In sixth grade, the pupil will analyze and explain the major causes and effects of World War II with an emphasis on the rise of Facism, Nazism and Communism, the Holocaust, and the major battles of the war and the reason for Allied victory. A 12th-grade history standard asks the student to explain the rights, responsibilities and benefits of citizenship in the United States and Virginia.
It is this specificity that has brought Virginia’s standards national recognition from conservative activists, presidential hopefuls and a national teachers union.
Friends and enemies
While conservatives hailed the standards, they were widely opposed by the education establishment.
“The content of these standards are an embarrassment to the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Mary Ann Lecos, the director of teacher education at George Mason University, said in March 1995 when the standards were the subject of public hearings throughout the state. She and other opponents criticized the standards for emphasizing memorization of facts rather than critical thinking skills.
The standards were originally developed by four large school districts throughout the state and then heavily revised by the Champion Schools Commission, a group hand-picked by Gov. Allen to recommend ways to improve education. Teachers who participated in the original drafting of the standards said their work was substantially revised by the conservative school commission.
These teachers and others who opposed the standards blasted Gov. Allen for trying to implement a conservative, religious agenda. In fact, Virginia is the only state where conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition lobbied for passage of the proposed standards while more traditionally liberal groups such as the teachers union and other educational associations opposed the standards. Conservatives liked the standards because they emphasized the basics, while the union and educators criticized the proposed standards for relying too heavily on the memorization of facts and for being too difficult at certain grade levels.
The standards were also criticized by teachers and school administrators for being too prescriptive and, therefore, akin to a state curriculum. For example, it is implicit in the English standards for the early grade levels that phonics will be the method used to teach youngsters to read.
As battles over Virginia’s standards raged, Gov. Allen argued even more vociferously that they were good standards. However, Bill Bosher, Allen’s superintendent of public instruction, was more willing to compromise. The head of the state Department of Education suggested that social studies standards, the most contentious subject area in all states that have developed standards, be further revised to remove items that were considered too difficult or too politically charged. Bosher, who is now superintendent of schools in Chesterfield County, a Richmond suburb, also successfully advocated dropping a suggested reading list, which included “Brian Wildsmith’s Illustrated Bible Stories,” from the standards.
After numerous public hearings at which more than 5,000 people alternately called the standards “a step backward” and “a step in the right direction,” Virginia’s revised Standards of Learning were approved by the conservative leaning state Board of Education in the late spring of 1995. The standards are mandatory in all public schools unless the local curriculum exceeds them. The state Department of Education does not police districts to make sure they are in compliance.
At this time, there is no statewide test to hold schools or students accountable for meeting the standards. Students must currently pass a sixth-grade reading test in order to graduate from high school. If they do not pass it in sixth grade, they can take it over each year until they do. This spring was the first time students were denied a diploma because they had not passed the Literacy Passport test. Less than 1 percent of seniors were denied diplomas for this reason.
But the stakes are about to get higher. After a heated battle in the state Legislature, Gov. Allen obtained more than $20 million in state funding to develop an assessment system that would measure student performance in third, fifth, eighth and 11th grades. In mid-October, Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement was hired to develop a series of tests which will be given for the first time in the spring of 1997. The first year’s test scores will not be reported to the public.
The next year, scores will be reported in the state’s newspapers but no sanctions will be levied against schools that fail to meet the standards. According to the governor’s timetable, sanctions could be imposed the following year.
Standards in Gus’ school
A year after the battle erupted over Virginia’s standards, a relative calm has returned to the commonwealth as schools have set about implementing the standards. A few schools have wholeheartedly embraced them. An elementary school in Winchester in the northwest corner of the state, for example, sends each parent a brightly colored handout which details how each lesson their child will be given fulfills the state’s requirements.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a few districts, like the sprawling Fairfax County school system, have turned their backs on the standards. “I don’t have a lot of time to pay attention to state standards, frankly, because we’re so far ahead of the state,” said Fairfax Superintendent Robert Spillane, a former national superintendent of the year.
The school district, the 12th-largest in the country, has its own standards, outlined in the Fairfax Framework for Student Success. Spillane said he supports standards — in fact, he could see himself becoming the national standards czar — but not the ones Virginia has adopted because they are far inferior to what school districts are already doing.
Most schools, like MacArthur Elementary, fall somewhere between these two extremes and have found ways to benefit from the Standards of Learning.
The MacArthur school has developed its own assessment system based on the Standards of Learning. Before beginning school, all kindergarten pupils are tested to see what they already know. This not only establishes a base line but helps teachers identify where their pupils’ weaknesses lie.
At the end of kindergarten and each grade thereafter, students are tested again to see how they stack up against the state’s expectations in English and math. The school-based assessment is also used to determine if a student needs extra help in a particular subject area.
While it is too early to tell if Virginia’s Standards of Learning are improving education, parents at MacArthur Elementary praise the efforts to raise expectations.
High standards, whether they come from the state, the school or home, are essential in motivating students to do well, said Cindy Hodgkins, a native of Auburn, Maine, and parent of two children at MacArthur.
“Virginia’s standards are very good,” said Patty Clair, who moved to Alexandria from Brookline, Mass., three years ago. “They’re definitely head and shoulders above where we came from.” She said her three children are much more challenged and are covering more material at the Virginia elementary school.
That, say Allen and Bosher, is exactly the point. Have high expectations and students will meet them. Challenge students and the public will praise you.
“Whether in Bangor, Sacramento or Richmond, we need to be doing this,” Bosher said during an October interview in his Chesterfield office. “This is the best way for the public schools to create some victories.”
SAMPLE MATH STANDARDS
KENTUCKY’S CORE CONTENT FOR ASSESSMENT NUMBER/COMPUTATION Elementary (Assessed at Grade 5) Students should understand: — whole numbers, fractions and decimals — meaning of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division — odd and even numbers, composite and prime numbers, multiples, factors — place value, number magnitude and other number relationships (e.g. ordering numbers, composing and decomposing numbers, multiple representations of numbers)
VIRGINIA’S STANDARDS OF LEARNING NUMBER AND NUMBER SENSE Grade One 1.1 The student will count objects in a given set containing between 10 and 100 objects and write the corresponding numeral. 1.2 The student will group concrete objects by ones and tens to develop an understanding of place value. 1.3 The student will count by twos, fives and tens to 100. 1.4 The student will recognize and write numerals 0 through 100. 1.5 The student will identify the ordinal positions first through tenth, using an ordered set of objects. 1.6 The student will identify and represent the concepts of one-half and one-fourth, using appropriate materials or a drawing. 1.7 The student will count a collection of pennies, a collection of nickles, and a collection of dimes whose total value is 100 cents or less.
MAINE’S LEARNING RESULTS NUMBERS AND NUMBER SENSE The student will understand and demonstrate a sense of what numbers mean and how they are used.
Grades PK-2 1. Know what numbers mean (e.g. that the number 7 stands for a group of objects). 2. Understands the many uses of numbers (e.g. prices, recipes, measurements, directions in play). 3. Order, compare, read, group and apply place value concpets up to 100. 4. Determine reasonableness of results when working with quantities. EXAMPLES — Show that 6 is larger than 3, using beans in a cup. — Explain different ways to make 263, using hundreds, tens, and ones.
Tomorrow: Maine’s Learning Results