Campaign to defend standards in schools

Concerns stoked by pundits unfounded, advocacy groups say

By Cathryn Creno

The Republic | 

Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards were mired in controversy long before they took effect in public schools last fall.

Conservatives, both in Arizo­na and nationally, have used the basis for the standards — the national Common Core State Standards Initiative — as a po­litical punching bag. Now, two powerful Arizona education organizations, the Rodel Foundation of Arizona and Expect More Arizona, say it’s time to fight back. They are organizing a pro-standards campaign called “Arizona Aims Higher.”

“We can’t be the silent major­ity any longer,” said Expect More’s president and CEO, Pearl Chang Esau. 

She spoke to about 200 business, education and community leaders who attended a program last week about the standards. It featured demonstrations of new teaching methods by Rodel Exemplary Teachers. Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards replace older standards on which the annual Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards assessment are based. The new standards went into effect in Arizona public-school classrooms at the start of the current school year. Students are expected to start taking a new annual assessment based on the standards in 2015.

Esau said 58 percent of Arizona voters surveyed by Rodel and Expect More in December had “little to no idea” what the new standards are.The two organizations partnered in contracting for a statewide phone survey of 500 likely voters in December.Among other survey results, 43 percent of voters said they favored implementation of the standards “based on what you know about them.”

But 71 percent said they favored the standards after being read the following description: “These new standards have been set to internationally competitive levels in English and math. This means that students may be more challenged by the material they study, and the tests they take will measure more advanced concepts and require students to show their work.”

Debra Duvall, executive director of Arizona School Administrators, was in the audience at Wednesday’s event. She said that she was not surprised by the survey results and that many people don’t closely follow politicized issues such as Common Core.

“But they (the new standards) have caught fire with the people who need to know about them — the classroom teachers,” she said.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal also spoke at the event. He said he has spent much of his time this school year debunking myths about the standards.

“We have spent hundreds of hours analyzing complaints about the standards, and we are still listening to every single complaint,” he said. “If there are flaws, we want to know about them.”

State and local education officials say complaints rarely come from parents who have problems with the changes going on in Arizona classrooms. The majority, they say, come from people who have concerns after listening to conservative media personalities.

Among the misconceptions are that the standards prohibit teaching cursive writing and require English teachers to replace classic literature with non-fiction texts. In reality, most schools are still teaching cursive and classic literature is still being offered in high schools.

Others have complained about new “American history standards” when the standards only address math and English classes.

So many people have confronted Huppenthal and his staff with fears that the standards will prompt educators to collect data on their finances, politics, religion and gun ownership that Department of Education staffers have developed a five-point fact sheet on the issue.

“Will the system track a family’s political affiliations or firearms ownership? Absolutely not,” Huppenthal’s fact sheet states. “The system is intended to do three major things: provide teachers data so they can better instruct their students, simplify the administration of the school system and reduce the burden of required reports.”

Probably the biggest misperception is that the new standards are a federal intrusion on local academic freedom. Conservative commentators, including Michelle Malkin, regularly tell listeners the standards were created by, and are being mandated by, the federal government.

But that is not the case. The standards were developed by teams of educators coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The standards also are not a specific classroom curriculum. They are a set of goals outlining what students should know and be able to do in each grade in English and math. Decisions about how to teach the standards — curriculum, tools, materials and textbooks — are still left to school districts and charter schools.

At least one bill introduced in the state Legislature this year, by Republican Sen. Kelli Ward of Lake Havasu City, would allow school boards and charter schools to opt out of the state assessment based on the standards.

Huppenthal said he used to have a similar view of standards and the tests that measure them. He said he even thought AIMS should be optional when he took office in 2011. The Arizona State Board of Education adopted the standards in 2010.

“I would have made the AIMS and the standards completely voluntary,” Huppenthal said.

But after seeing Arizona’s performance on standardized tests other than AIMS, he became a convert.

Arizona’s 2013 ACT College Readiness Benchmarks results, an indicator of how well students will perform in college, show 37.1 percent of Arizona students are on track to earnaBorCincollege level reading, and 24.4 percent are on track to earn a B or C in college-level math.

In comparison, 61 percent of Arizona students passed the 2013 AIMS math test, and 78 percent passed the AIMS reading test.

“We have not done Arizona students any favors by making them think that they are prepared for college when they are not,” Huppenthal said.

Republic reporter Alia Beard Rau contributed to this article.

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