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Deciding What Students Should Know

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The District is joining dozens of states in an effort to reform education standards.
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The District is joining dozens of states in an effort to reform education standards.

This year, the District has joined more than 40 states in an effort to establish common expectations for what students should learn every year from kindergarten through high school. The effort is part of the Common Core State Standards, a nationwide educational initiative.

Redefining 'proficiency'

D.C. Public Schools Chief Academic Officers Dan Gordon and Brian Pick are in charge of implementing the new standards, and Pick says the classwork for these new expectations is much more challenging.

For example, what students were taught in the 12th grade is now considered the level of work students should be learning in ninth or 10th grade. In previous years, Pick says they looked at students' scores in the District to determine their 'proficiency' on standardize tests.

"That proficiency score equates on the SAT assessment with the 16th percentile," says Pick. "So we're saying you're proficient, and you take the SAT and you're only at the 16th percentile nationally. So we need to be honest about what proficiency means when you're competing against other students around the country and around the world."

Changing teaching strategies and focusing on critical thinking

Under the new standards, children will be taught to think more like students in other countries, who typically score well on international tests. Gordon says authors of the Common Core Standards examined curricula from countries such as Hong Kong.

"What they found was amazing," says Pick. "Only 50 percent of the topics on this exam were in the curriculum. Contrast that with the U.S. where almost every topic is covered in our curriculum."

So how was it possible that students in Hong Kong only studied half the material yet did much better on tests? Gordon says the secret is they do the opposite of the U.S. strategy of going 'a mile wide and an inch deep.' He says by having a deeper understanding of certain learning techniques and issues, students in Hong Kong were able to handle unfamiliar problems when faced with them. They were able to make the leap and use creative steps to solve a problem they had no experience solving. The new Common Core Standards uses that strategy, and focuses on areas students need to develop to move onto to more challenging course work.

DCPS has spent approximately $1 million from a federal grant on implementing the new standards, and school officials say they're hoping this new approach will yield big results in the not-so-distant future.


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