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Flood of comments prompts delay in vote on new Missouri learning standards

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frankieleon | Flickr

Missouri education officials have 3,600 reasons to postpone approving proposed new learning standards for students in the state.

That’s how many comments the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has received on the proposed standards since work groups submitted the final version last year. About 600 of those comments came in the last month alone, after the state board of education heard the latest update on the process at its meeting in February.

The original timeline for approval of the document, which is designed to replace the controversial Common Core standards, called for the state board to vote at its meeting in Jefferson City next week. But because of the volume of the comments, the vote has been pushed to at least April.

DESE official Blaine Henningsen says that schedule still lets the department meet a May deadline set out in the law that required the Common Core to be replaced. And, he said in an interview, it also gives education officials time to assure people who took the time to comment on the proposal that their voice will be heard.

“We don’t want to rush through anything,” said Henningsen, who is assistant commissioner in DESE’s office of college and career readiness. “We want to listen to folks.

“Throughout this whole process, we’ve tried to be inclusive and collaborative and transparent. All of those things are very, very important to us. So we decided if we really want to take these things seriously, which we do, we need to hold off just a little bit longer with our final proposals.”

Are commenters happy with what the board will consider?

“Some people don’t like some of the changes that have been recommended,” he said, “and others think they’re just wonderful. As many comments as we have, we have opinions.”

Statewide standards, individual district curriculum

The process to replace Common Corewas set out in the law passed in 2014. It created work groups to meet and come up with a new set of standards in English, math, science and social studies.

Public hearings were held at various steps along the way, and a number of ways for Missourians and academic researchers to submit comments were also made available.

Standards are designed to spell out what students should know, and when. But education officials are quick to point out that how those subjects are taught, and what specific curriculum is used, is totally left up to individual districts.

The purpose of the standards, according to the law, is to “establish the knowledge, skills and competencies necessary for students to successfully advance through the public elementary and secondary education system of this state; lead to or qualify a student for high school graduation; prepare students for postsecondary education or the workplace or both; and are necessary in this era to preserve the rights and liberties of the people.”

Some people don't like some of the changes that have been recommended, and others think they're just wonderful. As many comments as we have, we have opinions. -- DESE official Blaine Henningsen

After initial acrimony among members of the work groups, most of them got down to the business of setting out what students should know in each academic area at various levels of their education. The final version of the standards was submitted to the state board last Oct. 1.

Comments continued to pour in after the February update to the board, prompting the one-month delay in bringing the standards up for final approval. Henningsen said the postponement will not prevent DESE from fulfilling the law’s requirement that the approval be completed by May.

“We’re ahead of that timeline,” he said. “Once we get the final approval from the state board, the clock starts on the development of the new assessments. We have two years to get that done.”

Tests based on the new standards are set to be used starting in 2018. Tests that will be given this spring and next year will still be based on current learning standards, which include Common Core. But test questions will come from a different vendor because the legislature barred DESE from continuing its involvement with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Two + two still = four

Asked whether the delay was prompted by the volume of the comments or the nature of what the commenters had to say, Henningsen said it was a little bit of both. He said there were a lot of comments about how the format of the proposed standards differed from Common Core.

“We are trying to find a happy medium,” he said, “between what’s been presented and what we think we can put in the hands of teachers that will be really, really effective and not cause too much concern with it being vastly different from what they’ve been using in the past.”

Blaine Henningsen
Credit Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Blaine Henningsen

To some degree, it is not what students should know that has changed as much as when they should know it, Henningsen said.

“If they had something in the past that’s been in fourth grade,” he said, “they may have moved it to third grade. They may have moved it to fifth grade, depending on what information they had when they developed their expectations.”

Are the standards tougher than they were before?

“It’s in the eye of the beholder, to be honest with you,” he said. “That’s one of the things that we are taking our time with as we review this last set of comments that’s come in. Our number one goal is for kids to be college or career ready by the time they graduate from high school. So we want to make sure that the rigor is there.”

Students aren’t the only ones who will be affected by the change, he noted. Teachers also are concerned about what kind of help they will get as the new standards become effective.

“We’re going to provide a tremendous amount of support for instructors as these new things are rolled out,” Henningsen said. “I think that’s the biggest concern that I’ve heard from everybody. It seems like we just went through this process, and developed some new standards, and here we go again.

“We realize how important it is for us to provide support and materials, not only just in terms of instructional materials but support in terms of what assessments might look like and those kinds of things as well.”

In the end, though, a lot of what makes up the basis of what Missouri students should know is not going to look all that different.

“Two plus two is going to be four, regardless of how you state it,” Henningsen said. “You’re going to have a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, and some kind of punctuation mark. So some of them are very, very similar in nature.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.