Colorado begins review of academic standards after years of avoiding Common Core controversy

The standards — which establish what students in each grade level should know in different subjects — were adopted in 2010.
6 min. read
Mrachek Middle School math teacher Diardra Gascon helps students solve a math problem. (Nicholas Garcia)

Mrachek Middle School math teacher Diardra Gascon helps students solve a math problem. (Nicholas Garcia)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Colorado lawmakers are to be briefed Wednesday on how the state education department is conducting a review of the state’s academic standards, which include the politically controversial Common Core.

The standards — which establish what students in each grade level should know in different subjects — were adopted in 2010. Schools were expected to fully adopt them by 2013. The same state law that led to the creation of the also required they be reviewed every six years. That’s the process that is starting now.

In appearing before lawmakers Wednesday, department of education officials will present data on a completed survey that gauged the education community’s perception of the standards and detail their 18-month plan to complete the review and make revisions.

The conversation between lawmakers and the education department comes as Colorado teachers, students, parents and advocates are being asked to suggest changes.

“We really need their voices on this,” said Melissa Colsman, the executive director of teaching and learning at the Colorado Department of Education, who is leading the standards review. “We want to make sure we get this right.”

The Colorado Academic Standards outline what students are supposed to know and be able to do in 13 subjects ranging from math and English to dance and theater. The benchmarks are supposed to serve as a guide for teachers throughout the year as they develop lessons.

The math and English standards have come under political fire in recent years in Colorado and around the nation. Colorado was one of 45 states that in 2010 adopted the Common Core State Standards, a set of benchmarks in both subjects developed by groups representing state governors and education commissioners.

Supporters of the Common Core, which puts an emphasis on critical thinking and analysis and demphasizes rote memorization, believe the standards are rigorous and set students on a course to be prepared for either college or a career. While critics are not a monolithic group, many detractors believe the standards are either not grade-level appropriate or a federal overreach.

While the federal government didn’t have a hand in writing the standards, the Obama administration did dangle grant money to incentivize states to adopt the standards.

A voluntary online survey commissioned by the Colorado education department late last year found that 49 percent of respondents, which included teachers, parents, and education advocates, had a positive impression of the standards.

Mirroring national trends, the more time and support teachers had in understanding the standards, the more likely they were to have a favorable impression.

Do your homework

CDE’s presentation on standards review process

Full results from CDE’s standards perception survey

Share your thoughts on the standards with CDE on the standards here

And while 42 percent of respondents believe the standards are grade-level appropriate, the same percentage report that the standards are beyond the intended grade level.

Of the nearly 3,000 responses, 65 percent were teachers and 10 percent were parents. The rest included students, higher education officials and members of advocacy organizations.

Advocates who have pushed for the Common Core standards to stay had the most favorable opinions. Parents and business owners had the least favorable opinions of the benchmarks.  

While local critics of the Common Core have made themselves known at the Colorado Department of Education and the state Capitol, the national debate over standards has been drowned out here by lawmakers focusing on testing reform.

That isn’t the case in other states. Under political pressure, both Indiana and Tennessee changed their standards. Although third-party reviews found little deviation from the Common Core. New York state, which is facing a similar backlash, began reviewing its standards earlier this year and is proposing sweeping changes. All three states were among the first to adopt the Common Core.

One reason political observers believe Colorado largely skipped the standards fight was because lawmakers built in a review of the standards when they first charged the education department to develop the benchmarks used in schools today.

While Colorado lawmakers have introduced legislation to force the state to drop the Common Core in previous years, their efforts were futile.

And this year, as the legislature grapples with newfound freedom under new federal education laws, interest is bubbling again. But no substantial legislation has been introduced yet.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, said he hopes the state’s review process improves the standards by upping the academic rigor while doing as little disruption to Colorado classrooms as possible.

“My standard is ensuring that kids are college and career ready, that (the standards are) rigorous and can be comparable across state lines,” Priola added.

Unless there is a change in legislation, the department will complete the online feedback portion of the review in April. Then the department will assemble 13 committees — one for each subject — to recommend changes to the State Board of Education, which must approve the standards by June 30, 2018.

A majority of the state board — including Republicans and Democrats — have voiced frustration with the standards for years.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he would like to see Colorado abandon the Common Core. Instead, he wants Colorado classrooms to consider the Core Knowledge model, which focuses on classical knowledge in math, science and English.

Given a recent change in the balance of power on the board, it’s less clear which direction board members will take with standards review.  

Colsman said the department does not have a “particular outcome in mind.”

Colorado classrooms will have two years to make necessary shifts before the state begins testing students on the updated standards.

“If we do this right, at the end of it, we’d strike the right balance of responding to feedback and making sure districts feel there isn’t a huge disruption to our work,” Colsman said. “It will be hard to get there. And the only way we can get there is if we have stakeholders at the table who are willing to be at the table and express their opinion.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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