Setting school standards

The Education Beat

Content: The State Board of Education has issued specific academic benchmarks that must be reached by children in third, fifth, eighth and 12th grades throughout Maryland.

July 28, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S AMAZING, when you think of it, that it took Maryland until the last year of the 20th century to specify what public school students should know at various points in their academic careers.

Until yesterday, when the State Board of Education approved a set of "content standards" for the third, fifth, eighth and 12th grades, the only guidance that local districts had were vaguely worded "frameworks" -- some as old as 14 years. They were of little help to teachers, students and parents in clarifying what should be mastered in reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies.

Now, here it is: a 171-page document forged over 18 months with the advice of more than 200 teachers, administrators and national experts.

Here are examples of Maryland's new content standards:

By the end of grade three, pupils should be able to recognize and identify all upper- and lower-case letters.

By grade five, they should be be able to draw circles, triangles and rectangles, given their dimensions.

By the end of grade eight, pupils should be able to conduct a statistical investigation to answer a question.

By the end of grade 12, they should be able to analyze the nation's changing immigration policy with emphasis on how the Immigration Act of 1965 and successor acts have affected American society.

Every state but Iowa has statewide content standards, and some -- Texas comes to mind -- have had them for years. Maryland's late coming to the pack is more a sign of decentralized decision-making than it is of benighted policy.

All 24 of the state's districts have standards, but they vary greatly in quality and strength of enforcement, and Maryland educators hate to cede authority to the folks on West Baltimore Street.

But what of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP)? Doesn't it, in effect, require uniform academic standards from Ocean City to Oakland?

Well, yes. But Maryland, unlike all other states, has put its testing cart before its curriculum horse.

The state launched MSPAP in the early 1990s. It's a high-stakes test, at least for the schools that are rewarded or punished according to their test results.

Only now is Maryland hitching its test to explicit standards. The educators call it "aligning."

The document approved yesterday makes for fascinating reading. In science and math, evidence indicates that Maryland is taking to heart the lessons of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a recent comparison that found U.S. students trailing peers elsewhere in the world. TIMSS exposed science and math instruction in the U.S. as a mile wide and an inch deep.

The new math and science standards are designed to address a "lack of coherence," said Janice Earle, a National Science Foundation official. She said many Maryland schools teach arithmetic well into middle school and introduce algebra much too late.

Leslye A. Arsht, co-founder of a consulting firm that helped Maryland write the document, said the state's reading and writing standards are patterned after those in Massachusetts and California, which are "clear, specific and measurable." California's standards were approved about a year ago, and that state is adopting textbooks that incorporate them.

Not surprisingly, the Maryland writers had the most trouble with social studies. This was in part because there is so much to cover and so little time. "There's a lot of history in the world," lamented Margaret C. Trader, assistant state superintendent for instruction.

Another problem with social studies is avoiding ideology.

A standard added in the final Maryland draft requires 12th-graders to "compare and contrast the various political systems around the world in terms of their use of power and the methods used to overthrow that power."

Standards are not curriculum, nor are they textbooks.

The experts predicted yesterday that curriculum in Maryland will change as the new standards take hold, and so will textbooks.

They said the best textbooks are in mathematics, a field in which there is general agreement on standards, and the worst are in reading and social studies, fields with deep ideological divisions and not a great deal of intellectual rigor.

One message comes through with the new standards: If a uniform Maryland curriculum was only implied with MSPAP, it's explicit with the new content standards. Twenty years ago, the 24 local superintendents in the state were effectively in charge of education in their fiefdoms. Increasingly, that responsibility is falling to the State Department of Education and Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Children are safer in school than in their communities

Factoid of the week: School crime has been decreasing gradually since 1993, and children are safer at school than in their communities or at home. Fewer than 1 percent of the murders of children take place at school.

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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