Nixon needs to act on standards, now!

Missouri is one of only four states to not have the governor sign on to work together to create a set of voluntary national standards. Texas, Alaska and South Carolina are the other three--conservative governors with presidential aspirations is the common denominator among them.

Why didn’t Gov. Jay Nixon sign on for Missouri? presumably because we are currently without a commissioner. However, since this was an association of governors, Nixon has the authority, the responsibility to lead the state. He doesn’t have to wait until a new commissioner is hired.

The president of Missouri's board of education said he, too, expected his members to revisit the issue soon."I think we'll seriously consider it over the next several months," said state board President Russell Thompson. "Once we're assured Missouri can have higher standards." (Missouri Balks, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

But the state doesn’t have that much time. Panels are working on suggested standards set to come out in July.

Later, a separate national "validation" panel, made of up of experts nominated by the states, will review the proposal. (46 States, Washington Post)

If we wait too long, we won’t have a chance to review the proposal. We have to make that deadline.

Some (such as Caitlin Hartsell for Show-Me Institute) say we don’t need to join the common standards movement because Missouri already has high standards.

And, as it is, fewer than half of Missouri’s students are meeting or exceeding the MAP standards Adopting lower national standards instead would only provide a misleading inflation of achievement metrics.

But this is mixing up the challenge level of the MAP, which is high, with the Missouri standards, which are not. In fact the math standards are under review, which is being extended because of disagreement with the draft standards.

Members of prominent university mathematics departments in Missouri are calling for an evaluation of state standards and expectations in K-12 math curriculum. (Math Professors, Columbia Missourian)

The math wars are nothing new, but the rigor of the Mo. standards is not high, is confusing and contains jargon.

For example, for fourth grade, the proposed standard is broken into Core Concept, Learning Goal and Performance Indicator. (Ed. to add--I chose this somewhat randomly. I’m familiar with 4th grade, and fractions are difficult and important. I did not pick and choose.)

Grade 4, Core Concept B--Develop understanding of decimals, including the connections between fractions and decimals.2) Understand relationships among whole numbers, commonly used fractions, and decimals.
  • Model fractions (halves, fifths fourths, eighths, and tenths) on a 10 x 10 grid representing one unit in order to convert fractions to decimals.
  • Rename whole numbers as fractions with different denominators (e.g., 5 = 5/1, 3 = 6/2, 1 = 7/7), with or without models.
  • Relate fractions with denominators of tenths and hundredths to decimals of equivalent values.
  • Identify equivalent fractions and decimals (less than one, equivalent to one, and greater than one), with and without models, including locations on a number line.
  • Use a variety of methods to compare and order decimals and fractions.

Compare this to a similar California standard:

Number Sense
1.0 Students understand the place value of whole numbers and decimals to two decimal places and how whole numbers and decimals relate to simple fractions. Students use the concepts of negative numbers:
1.1 Read and write whole numbers in the millions.
1.2 Order and compare whole numbers and decimals to two decimal places.
1.3 Round whole numbers through the millions to the nearest ten, hundred, thousand, ten thousand, or hundred thousand.
1.4 Decide when a rounded solution is called for and explain why such a solution may be appropriate.
1.5 Explain different interpretations of fractions, for example, parts of a whole, parts of a set, and division of whole numbers by whole numbers; explain equivalents of fractions (see Standard 4.0).
1.6 Write tenths and hundredths in decimal and fraction notations and know the fraction and decimal equivalents for halves and fourths (e.g., 1⁄2 = 0.5 or .50; 7⁄4 = 1 3⁄4 = 1.75).
1.7 Write the fraction represented by a drawing of parts of a figure; represent a given fraction by using drawings; and relate a fraction to a simple decimal on a number line.


As a state with a difficult assessment, I think we’ll benefit from a common standard. We won’t look bad when compared to states with easy assessments when they upgrade their tests. We won’t need to “dumb down” ours; instead, the rest of the country will need to catch up to our assessments. In fact, our standards need to catch up to our assessments.

Agreeing to work to create the common standards is not the same as agreeing to follow and change the MAP to assess by the common standards. This first step is a no-brainer. I’ll wait until the actual standards come out to make a decision on the next, but with our transient population that needs to meet international standards I applaud the effort and strongly encourage Gov. Nixon to sign on today. Otherwise, we’re likely to be looking at standards we did not have a role in helping to create.

Missouri beats Lithuania by one—in math

photo by apesara

Last fall, I blogged about the importance of comparing our students not just to other students locally or to other states but internationally. Ideally, we would have information for individual districts, but until we do, the American Institutes for Research has released a report that allows you to compare individual states with other countries. Missouri, not surprisingly, is right at the U.S. median for both fourth and eighth grade math scores.

At the fourth grade level only six states received a B; by eighth grade only Massachusetts received a B.

“These Asian nations consistently perform at the B+, B, and B- levels,” Phillips [acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 1999 to 2002] said. “Their students are learning mathematics not just at a higher level than students in the United States, but at a level that is a quantum leap higher.” The math proficiency average for U.S. students is C+ in grade 4 and C at grade 8. (AIR news release 16 June 2009)

Since Missouri is right behind the U.S. average, we are not competing well against Asian students.

“Our states and school districts should no longer be comparing themselves to their neighbors. They will be competing for jobs and innovations with students around the globe.” (AIR news release 16 June 2009)

I’ve said that before.

our states and school districts fall comparatively further behind in Grade 8 than they do in Grade 4. Although the United States falls further behind in the higher grade, the highest achieving countries maintain their level of performance. AIRInternationalBenchmarks2009

The middle school problem is real in the United States and, apparently, Missouri also. As a culture we are more concerned about their social lives than their academic abilities. Our expectations are not high-- “They can’t think clearly with all those hormones!” --but they obviously work hard in other countries. I would love to see if any of our middle schools are bucking this trend.

Here is the chart showing where Missouri places compared to other countries for eighth grade math. The grey bars are for countries with scores that are considered statistically similar. The interactive chart is fascinating to play with. I eagerly await the time when we can put individual school districts in for comparison.

How long do we need to study about Missouri

While my natural inclination is for local control as much as is feasible, nationalizing standards has some appealing arguments. For example, fourth graders throughout Missouri aren’t studying world history, American history, civics or other typical social studies topic. Nope, they’re taking a year to learn all there is to know about—Missouri. The state of Missouri. I’ll grant you we have some interesting history in the state. I even understand how they can acquire necessary skills such as reading maps, comparing and contrasting geographical regions etc. But, really? A whole year on Missouri?

If you live in another state, don’t start feeling superior because the children in your state are also studying it for a year most likely. If you’re lucky, they will revisit it in a later grade (here’s looking at you South Carolina!).

I think a unit or even two on the state is sufficient. I would even spiral that back around in later grades as students get closer to voting age. Heck, by then they might even still live in the state by the time they’re 18, so learning the names of their governor, state reps and state senators isn’t asking too much of a high schooler.

If families never moved, you could make the case for studying their own state in such depth, but that is not reality. With mobility rates of 15-20 percent, we can hardly justify spending an entire year on a single state.

Some may make the case that kids start out learning about their family, their neighborhood, then their community, and work their way up to their state, country and finally the world. How boring is that! Besides, kids have an easier time understanding other countries than state or county divisions, so learning is not quite so linear as that.

I suggest choosing high-interest topics such as ancient Egypt, pre-Columbian Maya or medieval Europe to introduce historical methods and skills. You could certainly include some Missouri-related units such as Lewis & Clark. I would then emphasize the state history within context of U.S. history as kids develop a sense of time flow in later elementary. That would seem to make more sense.

I think lack of world knowledge is a bigger problem overall than lack of state knowledge, so I can’t see how reducing time spent studying the state will harm our country’s ability to compete in the global economy.

Researching history at the library

National History Day 2007 Documentary Category National Winner: The Great Seattle Fire

I'm such a nerd. While in college my roommate skipped classes because she was hanging out with her boyfriend, she was sleeping, it was raining or any other excuse she could find (before flunking out). I skipped classes (and not just one or two) to hang out at the State Historical Society of Missouri. I was doomed as soon as I discovered it was actually on campus. I had one professor give us an assignment that required us to dig into old Missouri papers on microfilm. The other students complained about doing a stupid assignment that was probably just to help a prof with his research, but I was in my element.

Over 2,600 Mo. students grades 6-12 compete in National History Day. This year's theme is "Conflict and Compromise in History," which seems apropo in an election year. About 500 students will then compete at the state level in April with 45-50 going on to nationals in June. The St. Louis region's contest will be this Saturday, Feb. 23, at UMSL.

The ability to do real historical research and present their studies instead of just memorizing dates is a wonderful way to show students the relevance and fascinating aspects of history. Go St. Louis history students!

Students taking AP classes in Mo., or not

My Humps—Calculus

Students in Missouri are not taking AP courses at nearly the same levels as in other states according to the College Board annual report released earlier this week (Wed. Feb. 13). In Mo. 10.6 percent of students take an AP class versus 24.9 percent national average. We're at less than half the national average.

Nationally, 15.7 percent of students earn a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam; whereas, in Mo. only 6.7 percent do. In fact, Mo ranks 46th. (Yeah, the College Board recommends against ranking for a lot of valid reasons, but I did I did it anyway.)

Last summer, Mo. DESE sent out a press release praising the uptick in numbers of students taking the exam.

❝This year we sent more money to Missouri classrooms than ever before and also secured funding to encourage even more students to take AP classes, including training for more AP teachers and assistance to help cover the cost of AP exams. It is clear by our students’ outstanding performance that our investments are helping our students prepare for the challenges ahead,❞ he [Gov. Matt Blunt] said.

However, the 2.0 percent increase in the past 5 years is quite a bit less than the national average of 3.5 percent increase. Our students are falling behind.

It's possible students here are taking AP courses but not the exam. Adding in IB classes wouldn't raise the rates much since only a few high schools here offer them (Lindbergh, Metro). However, I wonder if St. Louis University's 1-8-1-8 program decreases students motivation to take the AP exam.

I couldn't find numbers on students in Mo. taking AP courses, but I did look up a few districts' offerings to compare to the national average (9). Clayton offers 21 AP courses including Calculus BC, Music theory and Macroeconomics. Hazelwood offers 15 including Computer Science and Physics. I also looked up a rural district and chose DeSoto at random. I couldn't find evidence they offered any AP courses. I didn't see any listed in the course schedule (except possibly calculus); nor were any mentioned in the student handbook. They are proposing a college prep certificate starting class of 2010. If that is reflective of rural districts, Mo. is in trouble.

Missouri has started two centers at Truman and SeMo to help train teachers to teach AP courses. This is a good start but not enough.

Data Mining


The Quality Counts 2008 Report is out, and Missouri didn't finish in the top tier. No surprise there.

One interesting question deep down in the report was whether a teacher had an identifying tracking number assigned (yes). Another was whether Missouri links teacher and student records by course/subject and assessment results (no). These questions were in between ones on teacher pay parity, mentor teachers and other traditional teacher quality questions. Mmm....

❝The day is not far off, teacher-quality advocates say, when a host of professional and policy decisions could be informed by analysis of data from thousands of teachers and students observed over time. Such longitudinal data allow researchers to measure changes in student achievement—and to link them with teacher characteristics.❞

Ah, a researcher's dream and a privacy advocate's nightmare.

❝For instance, teacher-preparation programs could be slated for overhauls—or not—depending on how well their graduates perform. Or state policies could reflect new knowledge about which qualifications indicate teacher effectiveness.❞

I already think teacher ed programs need overhauling, but research showing what works is always helpful.

❝While such systems have the potential to yield rich information on differences that affect student learning, they also raise a thorny question: Might teachers be ranked, assigned, or fired on the basis of such data?❞

The idea is to focus on student achievement instead of teachers, but in this day of accountability I don't believe that would really happen. As a researcher wanna-be, though, I see so much potential...