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Patrick team proposes new math, English standards

Associated Press | 7/20/2010, 7:27 p.m.

A top education aide to Gov. Deval Patrick recommended Friday that Massachusetts replace its own math and English public education standards with new proposed federal guidelines.

Those guidelines — pushed by the Obama administration — would control the material taught to students in every grade of states opting into the program. They also could lead to dropping the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, tests in both of those subject areas.

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said in a memo to his board that “the advantages of adopting the Common Core Standards outweigh the disadvantages.” He said they include a focus on reading and writing across a curriculum, and pay special attention to speaking, listening and vocabulary.

The board is slated to vote on his recommendation this week.

The specter of dropping the MCAS, a 1990s innovation credited with propelling Massachusetts to the top of national math and English standardized testing, prompted instant charges of politicking by Republican gubernatorial challenger Charles Baker. He suggested Patrick, a Democrat, was yielding to the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which endorsed him earlier this week and has long opposed the MCAS.

Other states such as California and Virginia, which similarly pride themselves on high education standards, have suggested the proposed federal guidelines may be sub-par.

“I am appalled at this move, but I am not surprised given the governor’s long history of siding with the unions on this and many other issues,” Baker said in a statement. “Massachusetts students are the best and the brightest in the country and to walk away from the MCAS exam is to walk away from the progress we have made during the past two decades.”

Patrick spokesman Alex Goldstein responded, “Yet again Charlie Baker is not being straight with voters. Gov. Patrick has been clear that he will not accept any standards unless they are as strong or stronger than our current nation-leading standards.”

The Common Core State Standards aim to replace a hodgepodge of educational goals varying wildly from state to state with a uniform set of expectations for students.

States are expected to use the standards to revise their curriculum and tests to make learning more uniform across the country, eliminating inequities in education not only between states but also among districts. The standards also will ensure students transferring to a school district in a different state won’t be far behind their classmates or have to repeat classes because they are more advanced.

Under Common Core, third-graders should understand subject-verb agreement, fifth-graders need to know about metaphors and similes and seventh-graders must understand how to calculate surface area. States that sign up are supposed to use the standards as a base on which to build their curricula and testing, but they can make their benchmarks tougher than Common Core.

Simultaneously, Massachusetts is among about two dozen states working on a new standardized test based on the Common Core. That exam is still several years away, and would also have to be approved by the board, but its likelihood would be increased if the state switched its curriculum.

Critics worry that uniform standards and testing will basically nationalize public schools, rather than letting states — especially educational overachievers such as Massachusetts — decide what is best for their students.

Chester addressed that concern in his memo, saying Massachusetts should take advantage of an allowance to modify up to 15 percent of the federal standards to meet its specific goals and standards.

“This means that we can benefit from adoption while incorporating those Massachusetts features that are not included in the Common Core Standards,” the commissioner wrote.

The debate has played out amid the gubernatorial campaign, most recently during a June 16 debate between Patrick, Baker and the third leading candidate, Independent Timothy Cahill.

Baker accused Patrick of considering eliminating the MCAS. To that Patrick responded, “Nobody is talking about walking away from the MCAS.”

Goldstein said in his statement: “Baker is intentionally misleading voters to distract them from his reckless budget proposal that would gut funding for public education, jeopardize our state’s progress and have a devastating impact on our teachers and students.”

Associated Press