Tuesday, May 02, 2006 | Corinne Wighlin, a teacher at Harborside Elementary School in Chula Vista, took her class of kindergartners to the San Diego Zoo last week, where her students stood in awe of a rhinoceros and counted its legs.

A casual visitor to the zoo standing near Wighlin might have concluded that the class’s trip was merely a leisurely Friday morning venture off school grounds. The observer could not have been more wrong.

While herding her students and responding to their rapid-fire questions, Wighlin kept etched in her mind a goal written in characteristic bureaucratese: California State Department of Education, Mathematics for Kindergarten Students, Curriculum Standard Number 1.1, Algebra: Students identify, sort, and classify objects by attribute and identify objects that do not belong to a particular group (e.g., all these balls are green, those are red).

Dreaded by some teachers, embraced by others, is the content standard. Content standards are set by the state of California and every school within the state is expected to teach students along these standards. Wighlin’s trip to the zoo gave students a memorable way to learn how to sort and classify objects by identifying and sorting animals by their number of legs and by whether specific animals are reptiles or mammals.

“Many of my students thought the rhino was a reptile because of its hard skin. One student saw a baby rhino with its mother drinking milk and concluded it was a mammal. At one point, students were yelling ‘Look at the mammals!’ It was a great trip,” Wighlin said.

This week, Ms. Wighlin’s students will be writing about their trip to the zoo, working to meet the California State Kindergarten writing standards, which include: Organization and Focus: 1.1, Use letters and phonetically spelled words to write about experiences, stories, people, objects, or events.

Like all states, the success schools have teaching these content standards is measured through standardized tests in California. Many schools within San Diego County are testing right now, as the three week “testing window” mandated by the state ends May 15. A lot rides on these tests, and it might be nice for some to learn what exactly is going on.

The Result of the ‘Standards Movement’

“Standards in public education go back to the mid-1980s, when state governors were asserting control over education policy and accountability was a state concern. Governors worked cooperatively to make systemic reform,” said Richard Elmore, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies education policy throughout the nation.

As a result of this “standards movement,” every state in the nation now has official, mandated curriculum standards that all school districts must follow.

The first set of curriculum standards in California were focused on mathematics and authored in 1987, said Tony Spears, senior director for curriculum and instruction for the San Diego County Office of Education, which helps the 42 separate school districts within San Diego County abide by state and federal requirements.

In subsequent years, standards were written for English-language arts, social studies, science, visual and performing arts, and English-language development for non-native English speaking students. The current California content standards were completed in 1998. While California’s content standards are not regularly updated or altered, every six years the California State Department of Education rewrites their “frameworks” for how school districts should teach to the content standards.

These frameworks are essentially the standards broken down more narrowly in descriptions ranging from 70-300 pages. In history, for example, one excerpt reads as follows: Recognize that literature and art shape and reflect the inner life of a people: Artists and writers tend to have sensitive antennae. In their work, artists and writers record the hopes, fears, aspirations, and anxieties of their society. A culture cannot be fully understood without knowledge of the poems, plays, dance, visual art, and other works that express its spirit.

The state publishes these frameworks as a guide for textbook publishers, said Gary Borden, the deputy executive director of the California Board of Education

The 1998 content standards were written by the California State Academic Standards Commission, a now-defunct commission that included 21 members appointed by the governor, state superintendent of public instruction, and members of the Legislature.

The commission was made up of academic experts who wrote the standards which were later adopted by the California Board of Education. Since 1998, the California Legislature has passed numerous bills that would update the standards. However each one of these bills was vetoed by Governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who argued that the Board of Education should make such decisions.

Other than the board – which is made up of 11 members – voting to amend the state standards, the only other way to alter standards is if the governor adopted such a bill passed by the state Legislature.

Individual school districts determine when to test their students, though districts try to schedule testing so students get some space between the tests, said Spears.

A testing schedule provided by the San Diego County Office of Education is downloadable here.

Rhinos: Mammals or Much More?

“I think these are minimal standards. There is nothing within the standards that I don’t want my children to know. But a standard like a kindergartner knowing the days of the week, for example: What does that mean? Should students just recite the days on cue, or should they know the days on a more cognitive level, like knowing that Friday is the last day of the week that we go to school,” said Dennis Doyle, the assistant superintendent of the district.

Doyle’s sentiments echo a frequent criticism of content standards: that they ask a lot, but aren’t clear about what proficiently meeting them looks like exactly.

“Proficiency in one district on these standards is different in another district,” said Lee Woldt, the executive director of instruction in the Chula Vista elementary district.

In Chula Vista, like most districts, all professional development for teachers is built around the California standards. Districts list test scores on their Web sites, with some districts going to great lengths to share students’ performance on standards with parents. In Chula Vista, for example, principals have large forums with parents to discuss standards where parents take home lists of standards on refrigerator magnets.

Doyle argues that schools should go further than just meeting state standards.

“Our goal is to not raise test scores. Our goal is to have powerful teaching and learning aligned with the state standards in every classroom. If we do that, then the results will show up on the tests,” Doyle said.

In North County, Peggy Lynch, the superintendent of the 10-school San Dieguito School District, agrees with Doyle.

“In some cases, the standards are broad. But I think it would be hard for anyone to say that it isn’t good for students to know these standards and expectations. Our principals know a lot about the standards and base their observations of teachers on the standards,” Lynch said.

An ‘A’ for California

The Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a nonprofit educational research organization, grades state standards every few years. In 2000, the most recent year that states received grades, California’s standards earned an A grade with 16 points out of a total of 16. Arizona received a B with 12.2 points and Colorado a D with 5.4 points. State content standards rankings are based on clarity, content, reason, and negative qualities.

Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and a former assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush Administration who helped write the original California content standards in the 1980s, said in an interview that California’s education standards are among the best in the nation but should be updated soon because science has changed dramatically in the last decade.

Ravitch suggests that amending standards is a task that should not be taken lightly.

“When changing standards there should be two considerations: One is that there should be consistency so teachers know what is expected. If standards are changed too frequently, teachers will ignore them. Changing them every six or seven years is an appropriate time. Secondly, you don’t want to hamstring teachers when crafting standards. Much should be left to teachers’ professional judgment,” said Ravitch.

Like Ms. Wighlin, California’s teachers have to figure out exactly how to teach to the state standards.

“Reaching the standards is the goal, but how to get there is up to the teacher. You can’t look at meeting the standards as something to drudge through every day. I now know the standards in my head and it is easier to teach because they provide me with a guide of what to teach,” Wighlin said.

Still, states face the dilemma of determining how significant a role politics should play in authoring standards, whether standards should be federalized, and to what extent should standards align with the economy of the future.

Coming Wednesday: When Jon Robell was a student at Point Loma High School, the Board of Education mandated the teaching of completely different mathematics content standards than it does today, and Robell failed his ninth grade algebra class. This year, as an algebra teacher at Crawford Educational Complex in City Heights, he was named teacher of the year.

Ramsey Green, a native San Diegan and a former high school social studies teacher, is currently a graduate student at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Reach him at

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