State gets a ‘D’ on curriculum standards

The academic standards used in Connecticut’s public schools for the last two decades are “among the worst in the country,” according to a report being issued today.

The good news is, new national standards being adopted by the state are far superior, the report says.

The state standards–essentially guidelines for curriculum development in public schools–received a grade of “D” for both mathematics and English from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C. group that advocates standards-based accountability for the nation’s schools.

The report, “The State of State Standards – and the Common Core – in 2010,” said Connecticut’s English standards are often vague and sometimes not measurable, leaving teachers “with very little guidance about what students should actually know and be able to do.”

In math, many standards are unclear. High school standards, in particular, are missing essential content, the report said.

The report’s analysis differs sharply from the opinion of state education officials, who said that Connecticut’s guidelines are a close match for the new Common Core State Standards released recently by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The State Board of Education voted earlier this month to switch to the Common Core State Standards, joining 24 other states that have adopted the new national guidelines in an effort to create more uniform academic expectations across the nation. More states are expected to follow.

The Fordham Institute rated the Common Core standards as clearly superior to those in most states, rating the common English standards as B-plus and math standards A-minus.

If states take the new standards seriously, “odds are the country is going to be better off,” said Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn Jr.

Despite Connecticut’s low marks on curriculum standards, the state’s record on national tests of reading and math is better than that of many other states, including several that received higher marks in today’s report. The report singled out California, Indiana and the District of Columbia for having superior English standards even though the performance of their students lags behind that of Connecticut and several other states.

“Standards are extremely important to state education systems and the national education system,” Finn said. But, he added, “they don’t get traction unless they’re implemented properly.”

The common national standards are expected to help states and local districts to shape curriculum, train new teachers and improve professional training for veteran teachers. In addition, the standards could lead to joint development of tests among states. Currently, state tests differ widely from one state to another.

In its analysis, the Fordham report said Connecticut’s English standards “are a mix of good and bad,” saying kindergarten through eighth-grade guidelines contain strong elements in early reading instruction and writing but also include expectations that “slip inappropriately into unmeasurable instructional strategies.”

Connecticut’s standards included no requirements for the study of American literature, “a major flaw,” the report said.

The report was especially critical of high school standards in both English and mathematics. In math, the high school guidelines were “very poorly presented and missing most of the essential content,” including only minimal references to concepts in geometry and trigonometry, for example, the report said.

“There was a lot we were looking for [that] we didn’t find,” said Michael J. Petrilli, Fordham’s vice president for national programs and policy.

State officials disagreed with the conclusions.

A report to the State Board of Education this month said that the new standards, in many cases, are closely aligned with existing standards in Connecticut. A review by Connecticut educators concluded that 80 percent of the common English standards and more than 90 percent of common math standards match existing Connecticut guidelines.

“We’re a bit surprised the analysis from the Fordham Institute differs from our analysis,” said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education.

“We’re confident we do have a strong correlation between our standards and the Common Core,” he said. “Nevertheless, we’re making the changes, and we’re going to move forward . . . [and] make certain we’re in complete compliance.”