Making Our Schools More Rigorous

After lowering its standards of student proficiency a few years back as a stratagem to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Tennessee is now commendably in the forefront of states that are raising them.

More rigorous curriculum standards recently adopted by the State Board of Education will take effect next school year, and the state's TCAP exams are due to be upgraded to reflect them starting in 2010.

The curriculum revisions for English, math, and science extend all the way from kindergarden through high school. A major emphasis is on developing student analytical and problem solving skills rather than rote learning. The objective is to put all students —or as many as possible—on a path toward preparedness for college and/or skilled 21st century jobs.

Just how much more demanding the new curriculum and resultant measures of student proficiency will be is difficult for a lay person to assess, but it's clear that a great deal of effort has gone into their development on the part of the American Diploma Project Network (ADP), whose formative work was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the GE Foundation, and IBM Corp. Tennessee became one of the 29 states to join the network in 2007, and more are expected to follow.

At the high school level, the more rigorous standards are most easily understood in terms of the additional courses required for graduation. Starting in 2009-10, entering freshmen will be required to take four years of math (up from three), including two years of algebra plus geometry and trigonometry. Either chemistry or physics will be required in addition to biology (the only science course required up to now). Moreover, students will have to pass state-administered exams in all those subjects, as well as three years of English that are expected to set a much higher bar than the Gateway exams previously required for high school graduation in Algebra I, Biology, and English alone.

In conjunction with promulgating these requirements, the State Board of Education stated that, "These revisions require the K-8 curriculum to be revised to support the increased expectations and rigor of ADP-aligned high school courses." The new K-8 curriculum standards run to several hundred pages and are expressed in educator-ese that make it hard for laymen (me anyhow) to grasp them or how they differ.

In an attempt to offer a helpful example of a revision to eighth-grade math-learning expectations, the SBE says the new standard requires students to "Use technologies/manipulatives appropriately to develop understanding of mathematical algorithms, to facilitate problem solving, and to create accurate and reliable models of mathematical concepts," whereas the former standard only expected a student to "analyze change in various contexts." From that, the SBE goes on to say that, "You can see that the [new] teaching standard is inclusive and more like a question that would appear on a national test like the ACT, whereas the former teaching standard was broad and vague."

In some ways, such as requiring four years of high school math, Knox County Schools are already ahead of the new state standards. And initiatives set in motion last year by Assistant Superintendent Donna Wright have the laudable goal of lifting high school graduation rates to 90 percent (from 78 percent last year) with 90 percent of the graduates taking the ACT and 90 percent of them scoring 21 or higher, which is the benchmark for success in college.

Still, Wright believes, "The America Diploma Project will turn the state around, if we provide enough money for teacher training." She professes to be "looking forward to its implementation but with apprehension" as to whether sufficient resources will be forthcoming.

Another big uncertainty is how the new state standards will affect attainment of NCLB's proficiency targets—and sanctions for schools that fail to do so. As matters stand, NCLB requires proficiency on the part of 93 percent of elementary and middle school students by 2010 with waivers for schools that are deemed to be making "adequate yearly progress" toward that goal. In 2006, 87 percent of Tennessee eighth-graders met the state's "dumbed down" measure of proficiency on the TCAPs. But this contrasted starkly with the "gold standard" set by the National Assessment of Education Progress that showed only 23 percent of Tennessee eighth graders were proficient—just about the biggest disparity in any state.

The executive director of SBE, Gary Nixon, acknowledges that the higher bar set by the state's new curriculum and TCAPs will impact school proficiency scores. But he foresees that, "It will be like a J curve where we'll take a decline for a little while and then turn back up and get way ahead." NCLB officials, he says, "have promised they'll work with us" through the transition, and "you won't see 90 percent of our schools on the bad list."

To truly test for college and work-force readiness, "We have to make our measures more like NAEP," Nixon says, and the state is to be commended for striving to do so.