School officials to consider new content standards

State officials are poised to take what arguably could be one of the most important steps in Kentucky education since the passage of KERA.

Early next year, state education officials will consider adopting new "common core content standards" for math and English language arts that have been developed by a national group of educational experts.

The new common standards — which would describe content deemed essential for children to learn — would ensure that the content taught to Kentucky students in preschool through 12th grade is consistent with what children are taught in as many as 47 other states. Kentucky would not start testing students on the new standards until the 2011-12 school year.

It might sound simple, but educators say the long-term implications would be huge.

More uniform content would make it easier to compare Kentucky students' progress with how well their counterparts are doing nationally and allow for more accurate testing, experts say.

Consistent standards from state to state would be a boon for Kentucky students applying for out-of-state colleges, as well as those going straight into the work force, advocates contend.

The new content standards also would stress fewer and clearer topics, but greater depth of understanding, something Kentucky teachers have advocated for years.

"When we adopted new standards in the past, many people wanted to put in their own preferences," said Cindy Heine, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. "So, the standards got very broad, and we had teachers struggling just to get through all the material. Changing that will be very important."

Finally, educators say that adoption of common standards for math and reading would mesh with the requirements of Senate Bill 1, the sweeping education update passed by the General Assembly last winter. It calls for new state content standards in many different classes and a new system for testing students.

Preparation of the new, common content standards began several years ago as a joint initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. According to the latest information, Kentucky and 47 other states have signed on to the effort, along with the District of Columbia and two federal territories, although it's unclear how many ultimately will adopt the standards.

Adoption of the standards in Kentucky would require action by the state Board of Education, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board.

That could come at a meeting scheduled for Feb. 9, assuming that the final draft of the new standards is ready by then, said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

"This is probably the biggest revamp of curriculum in Kentucky since KERA was passed in 1990," Gross said. "If you're going to hold schools accountable for how well they teach kids, you have to have these standards to decide how you're going to assess them."

If Kentucky adopts the standards, Gross said, the first step would be for state education officials to go through them and determine what training or other assistance Kentucky teachers would need to use the new requirements. Preparations then could get under way to put the standards into use starting in 2011, she said.

"For the average person, this probably wouldn't be very noticeable," Gross said. "But it will be very noticeable for teachers.

"They will be refocusing on what they teach in their classrooms based on the standards, and the things that students are assessed on will be drawn from the standards."

But Heine, of the Prichard Committee, noted that people might notice a difference right away if Kentucky's students struggled to meet the new standards.

"It could have some implications that are a little uncomfortable at first," she said. "If we're setting higher standards and students struggle with them, there could be some push-back.

"But the public needs to understand that if we want our students to graduate from college and compete on an international level, they're going to have to reach higher levels. We'll have to support our teachers and our students, and encourage them to stick with it."