When the state Board of Education signed on to the new national standards for language arts and math last month, it joined what is now 24 other states setting a single milestone for what every child should be taught in school and when.
But the real work has only just begun, as the vote set off a flurry of activity for the state to next develop a matching “model curriculum” for schools to follow and move toward new state assessments, both short- and long-term.
“The easy part is adopting the standards,” said Willa Spicer, assistant state education commissioner who will be overseeing the standards revisions. “We have a long-range plan for this, and we’ve started to move on it. But it does take time.”
New Jersey is hardly alone in facing the challenges of joining the Common Core State Standards project, which is being strong-armed by President Obama and his administration through the federal Race to the Top grant program worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to a state.
But win or lose the grant, any change in standards is also rife with demands if it is to mean more than a signature on a piece of paper, officials said.
Along with the new standards will come a new curriculum for schools to follow, professional development for teachers, and even new materials and textbooks for the classrooms, all of which will require months, if not years, to implement and complete.
“The adoption is an important first step, but it will end up an empty one if it’s not followed through,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The Fordham Foundation weighed in on the situation yesterday with the announcement of its annual review of all 50 states’ own state standards against the new Common Core standards.
The foundation is a big fan of the new national standards, citing both their rigor and clarity, and it commended states like New Jersey that appeared to upgrade their expectations for students.
In its 15 years reviewing state standards, the Fordham Foundation has been an outspoken and influential critic of many states’ standards for lacking that same rigor and clarity. And New Jersey has not been left out of that criticism this year, either, receiving a “C” from the foundation for its previous math and language arts standards.
That’s about average for the country, the foundation said, but below the A- and B+ grades bestowed on the respective Common Core standards.
“New Jersey’s standards are extremely difficult to read and understand,” the review of the math standards read. “They are presented in several different documents and, within each presentation, the organization is complex, making them difficult to follow.”
The Fordham Foundation cited one math standard in particular, repeated for Grades 3 to 6: “Compare and order numbers.”
Spicer of the state education department didn’t much contest the grades, saying the Fordham Foundation’s criteria overlooked a few of the previous standards’ strengths but acknowledging that the Common Core standards are an improvement.
In some cases, she said, it will be sea change for districts.
“In math especially, it’s going to require a re-emphasis on what we teach,” Spicer said. “The automatic knowledge in the early grades – not just multiplication but also addition, subtraction – that’s something we’ve never done.”
Spicer said the state has begun to form committees that will be charged with developing a curriculum for schools to follow, if they choose. She stressed that it will only be a model and not required of schools -- a hot-button topic in a state renowned for its home rule. “They can use it as they wish,” she stressed.
Meanwhile, the state is part of two separate national projects developing accompanying tests to go with the new Common Core standards, tests that are not likely to be ready for even field testing for two more years, Spicer said.
The state also plans to launch its new algebra test for high school students next year, the first in a set of specific subject tests that will replace the existing high school exit exam.
Still, some are skeptical that the standards themselves will bring much change without a wholesale shift in the state’s testing, especially in high school.
New Jersey schools have arguably the highest graduation rate in the nation, but the state has also long been criticized for a high school exit test that provides an alternative exam for students who do not pass.
The state sought to close that loophole this year by tightening the administration of the alternative test. But that brought a backlash when more than 2,000 students who otherwise completed all their classes and other requirements were then denied their diplomas due to falling short on the new version of the test.
“Standards aren’t going to mean much unless you measure everyone in the same way,” said Charles Barone, a policy analyst for the Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based group now with a branch in New Jersey.
“Otherwise, it just sits on a shelf in Trenton, while some students continue to be asked to achieve at one level and others at another,” he said.
Spicer didn’t deny that the state’s alternative test remains problematic, with her office forced to develop an appeals process on the fly this year when the initial count of students failing the alternative test was close to 10,000.
And she said the development of new standards alone will not solve that problem until real changes comes to the schools themselves. The appeals process was revelatory in exposing how under-prepared some students were, she said, despite having passed all their classes.
“The problem is what do you do with kids who fail the test,” Spicer said. “And that’s no different now than it ever was.”