At its last meeting on May 11, the New Hampshire State Board of Education (SBOE) discussed and heard public input on a proposal from the Department of Education (DOE) to review the state academic standards for math and English language arts (ELA). The public testimony was overwhelmingly against the DOE’s proposal, with parents and educators urging the Board to retain the current state Math and ELA standards. At the end of the meeting, the Board issued a call for additional public input on the standards at the upcoming June 8 meeting (see here for our post on the call for public input).
The DOE’s proposal, as currently drafted, raises some significant concerns, but before diving into an analysis of the Department’s proposal, it is worth stepping back to review the basic purpose and intent behind our state standards.
What are the state academic standards and what is their purpose?
In New Hampshire, where local control of, and commitment to, education runs deep, the most significant decisions about education are made by local school boards, educators, parents, and community-members. These local stakeholders shape the day-to-day experiences in and around classrooms and have the greatest influence over the educational pathways and opportunities available to students.
But, the state government also has a critical role, and one of the ways that the state supports education is by setting academic standards. State academic standards, which are set by the State Board of Education, are common benchmarks for the concepts that students across the state should be able to demonstrate mastery of at a given grade. The standards serve two purposes – first, they set the bar in terms of the skills, abilities, and knowledge that we as a state consider necessary for students to learn and thrive in the 21st century; and second, they play an important role in role in holding the state accountable for delivering on its duty to ensure every student receives an education that prepares them to succeed in today’s world.
The first purpose (setting the bar in terms of student learning goals) receives the most attention during education policy-debates and it is most evident when you look at the DOE’s website (where you can see all of the standards), but we should not overlook the critical accountability role that state academic standards serve.
Every year, New Hampshire students in grades 3-8 and in grade 11 take statewide assessments that are matched up to the state academic standards (math and ELA assessment in grades 3-8 and 11; science assessment in grade 4,8, and 11).
If the statewide assessment data shows certain schools significantly outperforming others, then we can go and see if there are best practices to spread. On the other hand, if certain schools are significantly underperforming on the statewide assessment, then parents, community-members, and lawmakers can work together to deliver the necessary supports to improve student success.
What is the DOE proposing to do?
The DOE presented a plan to the State Board to review the state academic standards for Math and ELA. The DOE’s proposal would have a Strategic Leadership Team and a Standards Review Team implement the review beginning in August of 2017 and extending through June 2018. By June of 2018, the DOE proposal would have a new or revised set of standards for the SBOE to consider. Here is the proposal in full.
What are the concerns with the proposal?
There were several concerns and issues raised by parents, educators, and community-members during the May SBOE meeting.
We will not recount those concerns here (you can read more about there here), instead, we will focus on some important policy and process concerns raised by the DOE’s proposal.
Standards reviews should be driven by demand from the local level.
Local communities are the driving force in New Hampshire public education. Educators, parents, students, and community-members are responsible for shaping the educational opportunities available to students. They are the best judges of when our state standards need to be reviewed. (For example, with New Hampshire’s state science standards, the SBOE followed the lead of the overwhelming majority of districts in adopting the Next Generation Science Standards.) Local educators and parents are continuously adapting the state academic standards to meet the needs of their local communities, and if and when educators or parents identify issues with the state standards, they then elevate their concerns to the SBOE and the DOE. This bottom-up approach is consistent with New Hampshire’s local control ethos and is the most effective process for ensuring that the SBOE and DOE play productive supporting roles in facilitating the work done by local leaders. Local educators, parents, or community-members have not called for a review and revision of the state math and ELA standards – in fact, they have come out in great numbers to express their support for keeping the standards as they are.
Standards reviews should be specific, detailed, and aligned with local efforts.
Since New Hampshire adopted its math and ELA standards in 2010, school districts and communities have made significant investments in terms of curriculum, professional development, and assessment tools to integrate, adapt, and expand upon the state standards. Parents are now familiar with the state math and ELA standards.
If and when the state conducts a standards review, it should be tailored to specific concerns raised around specific standards and then implemented in such a fashion so as to minimizes the disruption to local school districts. Unfortunately, the DOE proposal does not speak to any specific concerns around the standards and instead suggests that the state could start over with respect to math and ELA standards (a complete rewrite instead of a targeted review).
Standards reviews should minimize disruption to state accountability efforts.
New Hampshire’s state accountability system relies upon the state academic standards to set a common benchmark for student learning across the state. Using the statewide assessments that students take each year (grades 3 -8 and once in high school), the state identifies where it needs to invest additional resources and supports. A key aspect of this process is capturing year-over-year data on the statewide assessment so that the state (and the broader public) can see trends over time. New Hampshire is currently in the third year of using the the Smarter Balanced Assessment for the statewide assessment in math and ELA for grades 3-8. Given that the statewide assessment has to line up with the state academic standards, ideally we would maintain the existing assessment structure while conducting a standards review so that parents, students, and educators only experience one change in the statewide assessment, implemented at the conclusion of the standards review. Unfortunately, the DOE’s proposal would conduct a standards review at the same time that the DOE is considering changing the statewide assessment (the DOE published a new request for proposals for the statewide assessment earlier this year). This means that New Hampshire’s students could take 3 different statewide assessments over the course of three years (Smarter Balanced in 2017, a new assessment that lines up with the current standards in 2018, and then another new assessment in 2019 that lines up with new standards adopted after the standards review).
In addition to the enormous amount of confusion this would cause, the repeated changes in the statewide assessment would make it difficult for the people of New Hampshire to analyze trends in student achievement at schools across the state, to the detriment of students who could benefit from additional state and local support.
Standards reviews should build upon existing innovations in personalized learning.
New Hampshire is a national leader in personalizing learning for students. School districts across the state have developed innovative methods for empowering students to have greater choice in how they learn concepts and how they demonstrate mastery while still upholding challenging standards. What this looks like in practice, differs from community to community. As an example, personalized learning can mean opportunities for students in elementary school to choose the book or story they want to read for a reading assignment AND then also choose the project through which they will show what they learn. So, a student who enjoys working with her hands can create a diorama that exemplifies the main points from the book while a student who loves writing can produce an argumentative essay. In order to make this kind of personalization possible, New Hampshire’s educators and communities have invested significant energy and resources in developing research-based approaches for assessing student learning when the final projects are so different (i.e., how to fairly and accurately grade the diorama vs. the argumentative essay). And these innovations are working to improve student learning.
Any standards review should build on these innovations by gathering feedback on how best to structure state academic standards so that educators and communities can adapt the standards into personalized, project-based learning. Unfortunately, the DOE proposal does not address New Hampshire’s advances in personalized learning and so it could result in unnecessarily impeding the growth of innovations proven to help students thrive.
Standards reviews should align with other state educational initiatives.
Effective standards reviews unfold as part of a larger process, with the state and districts working together to ensure that professional development, working groups, and communications efforts are aligned and consistent across the state.
This minimizes confusion for parents and students, provides educators with the tools they need to integrate the revised standards, and fosters the sharing of best practices across districts. There is no such coordinated effort to support the DOE proposal (which means the DOE proposal would come across as a top-down push disconnected from work on-the-ground in schools).
Effective standards reviews tend to be costly.
The DOE has not yet addressed the key issue of if, and how much, the review would be funded. Effective standards reviews involve convening numerous committees of parents, students, practitioners, and community-members for in-depth sessions to go over individual standards. Reviews also can entail contracting with policy-experts to discuss best practices or provide specific research. The quality of the outcome of any standards reviews depends in significant measure on how well the review is funded – in Tennessee, for example, the state budgeted approximately $150,000 for a single review. Members of the State Board have taken a deeper look at what effective reviews in other states have looked like. Here is a link to their research.
On June 8, the SBOE will hear additional public input on the review proposal. The SBOE could decide to move forward with the review, reject the review entirely, propose that the DOE focus instead on reviewing different standards, or continue to debate the proposal and ask for additional information or changes.