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State panel adopts US academic standards

Changes in store for MCAS; new test is possible

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / July 22, 2010

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MALDEN — The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education unanimously approved replacing the state’s highly regarded academic standards yesterday with national guidelines, ushering in a wave of change in classrooms across the state.

The vote makes Massachusetts the 26th state to adopt the Common Core, which specifies the material and skills that should be taught in English and math at every grade level in states that participate, according to the National Governors Association, one of the leaders of the effort.

Switching standards will, at a minimum, mean changes to the state’s standardized testing system, MCAS, which bases questions on the state standards. It could also lead to an entirely new test that would be developed by Massachusetts and about two dozen other states using the national standards.

The question of a new test has been politically explosive, and state officials, defending themselves against some Republican attacks about abandoning MCAS, said they are committed to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

The new national standards emphasize mastering computation and numeric operations at a younger age. They also stress, among other things, nonfiction reading and expository writing, in contrast to the current Massachusetts standards, which favor literature and creative writing.

The board’s decision follows a fierce battle in Massachusetts over adopting national standards that have been divisive in other high-performing states. Several previous attempts to create uniform standards among states have failed, but some say Massachusetts’ decision could entice other states to follow.

The Obama administration has been pushing states to adopt the national standards by dangling financial incentives, which appeal to Mas sachusetts education officials as they deal with budget cuts.

In a telephone interview, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was ecstatic.

“This decision will reverberate far beyond the borders of the state,’’ Duncan said. “What it ensures is that Massachusetts will now be a leader, or the leader, nationally in getting the country where it needs to go. It’s a great step in the right direction, not for just the children of Massachusetts, but the whole country. It takes courage to lead.’’

In an interview after the vote, Paul Reville, the state’s secretary of education and an education board member, called the board’s decision a “watershed moment.’’

The uniform standards attempt to remedy a disparity in the nation’s public schools: A few states, like Massachusetts, have established far more rigorous standards than others, a scenario that worsened in recent years as some states lowered their standards to make their schools look better when judged under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Critics have asserted that the national standards, developed by a consortium of states, are weaker than those in Massachusetts. Analyses by the state and several outside organizations concluded the two sets of standards are largely comparable, with some differences in approach.

The changes should filter into classrooms over the next two years as school districts align lesson plans at each grade level to reflect the national standards, an effort that could include purchasing new textbooks and other materials and additional training for teachers when budgets are lean.

State education officials say the adjustments should be modest for most districts, since the people who drafted the national standards relied heavily on advice from Massachusetts specialists.

Several superintendents welcomed the new standards. Superintendent Carol R. Johnson of Boston said the district will soon begin the time-consuming task of determining what adjustments might be necessary.

“Now the real work begins,’’ Johnson said.

Governor Deval Patrick, who was in Iraq yesterday visiting the troops, said in a statement that he supported the board’s vote.

“These standards will be as strong as the ones we already have in place and in some cases will be stronger,’’ Patrick said. “And they are consistent with our MCAS, which has been and will continue to be a key element of our progress.’’

But not everyone was pleased.

“We continue to maintain that the Massachusetts standards are higher,’’ said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative-leaning research organization that has issued several reports criticizing the national standards.

In the days leading up to the vote, a recommendation by the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Mitchell Chester, to adopt the standards lit up the gubernatorial race, with Patrick’s challengers opposing the switch, accusing Patrick of plotting to abandon MCAS. The Patrick campaign repeatedly denied the assertion.

At yesterday’s meeting, roughly three hours before the vote, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker was the first to address board members.

“Moving away from the state standards would be a mistake for students, schools, and this state,’’ said Baker, a former education board member. “The state’s status as a leader in K-12 education is one of the reasons why employers choose to locate here.’’

Baker, however, was the lone voice making such a plea, as one speaker after another urged the board to approve the national standards.

“Much of the criticism of the Common Core is ill informed and exaggerated,’’ said state Senator Robert O’Leary, a Cape Cod Democrat who cochairs the Joint Committee on Education.

The board’s chairwoman, Maura Banta, summed up her support by saying, “I want us to be part of a globally competitive world.’’

All eight of the 11 members present voted in favor of the proposal. Sandra Stotsky, a vocal critic of the national core, was absent.

The vote should improve the state’s chances of securing $250 million in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top educational funding competition, which gives more weight to states that adopt the national standards by Aug. 2.

After the meeting, criticism of the vote was quiet in comparison with the debate that preceded it.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Timothy P. Cahill said in a statement that he was “extremely disappointed.’’

“We are abandoning more than 15 years of progress made here in the Commonwealth,’’ Cahill said. “The Patrick administration has decided to put Washington ahead of our children and the future of our state.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.