NASHVILLE (AP) – Supporters and critics of a new set of benchmarks for math and reading are getting their voices heard this week, as a state Senate panel holds hearings on the common core standards that have been adopted to some degree by 47 states and the District of Columbia.
The meetings Thursday and Friday before the Senate Education Committee are mainly an opportunity to shed more light on the standards, described as a state-led effort to provide students with critical thinking, problem solving and strong writing skills they need to help prepare them for college and global competition in the workforce.
"We're trying to give both sides an even platform to express their concerns," said Sen. Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat and vice chairman of the committee. "From this, hopefully we can come up with a better instrument to improve our outcomes."
States don't have to implement the standards. A few have adopted components of the benchmarks, while Alaska, Texas and Virginia have not adopted the standards at all.
In Tennessee, one main criticism is that teachers aren't being given enough time to adjust to the new standards, which are expected to replace the current TCAP tests in math and English next year to better measure student learning.
Mitchell Johnson is interim executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. He said most teachers are in favor of tougher standards that "promote higher thinking skills," but he said the concern is the "speediness in which it's trying to be implemented."
"Teachers and administrators in school systems need time to take a look at the curriculum they have, take a look at the lesson plans, and then align curriculum in the lesson plans to these new standards," Johnson said, adding that the implementation should be delayed at least another year.
"And then on top of that, they need time to prepare their students for what is going to be a more complex test that is going to be given to them."
Johnson said teachers – some of whom will be testifying before the committee – are also concerned because of a recent proposal by the state Education Department to tie teacher licenses to student test data, which he said jeopardizes a teacher's livelihood if students don't perform well.
"The punitive nature that's being applied to student test scores ... causes a tremendous amount of concern," he said.
Susanna Cerasuolo is a guidance counselor and former English teacher from Seattle who attended the National College Access Network's conference this week in Nashville. She acknowledges the new standards are needed to better prepare students, but said she can relate to teachers' concerns because of experiences she's had trying to teach students who are on different levels in the classroom.
Cerasuolo said some teachers may have a tough time getting all students up to speed, and may need some kind of remedial support from the state.
"I think giving teachers resources ... to support the kids who need to catch up; that will really help teachers," said Cerasuolo, who has created a website to better provide students with information they need to apply to a higher education institution.
"And then not judge a teacher when all of her students don't meet common core."
As for preparation, Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said the state has offered free training to more than 30,000 Tennessee educators on how to implement the new standards.
"This is by far the largest training our state has ever taken on, and as far as we know, it is the largest effort by any state to prepare its teachers for the new standards," she said. "We have received tons of positive feedback from our core coaches, and we're excited about the future."
Common core supporters point to recent national test data as a reason not to delay implementation in Tennessee. The results released last month show Tennessee's high school graduates fell short of national results for ACT college readiness benchmarks this year.
In English, reading, mathematics and science combined, 18 percent of Tennessee's Class of 2013 achieved college readiness, compared with 26 percent nationally.
The biggest gap was in math, with 29 percent of Tennessee students being deemed college ready, compared with the U.S. rate of 44 percent.
"We have huge a gap in Tennessee," said Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a staunch supporter of the new standards.
"And this type of expectation and standard is going to be a foundational and key part of getting students where they need to be; not just about test scores, but more importantly the skills and knowledge that they'll need to be equipped with to be successful in life."
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