With the recent release if the NGA’s Common College Readiness Standards there’s been quite a bit of emphasis on academic standards lately. But tough, appropriate standards are only half of the battle. We also have to be concerned with how the standards are implemented.

Take Virginia, and its Standards of Learning.

In its recent revision of the Virginia Standards of Learning for Mathematics, the Virginia Department of Education patted itself on the back for eliminating calculators in elementary grades and reducing the number of standards. Unfortunately this is nothing more than a shell game.

In Grade 3 Virginia students sit for the SOL exams for the first time. Just glancing at the 2009 revision of the grade 3 standards reveals that the number of standards has dropped from 25 to 20, and calculators, which used to be an integral part of the grade 3 standards, have been removed. If you only looked at the standards you’d be convinced that Virginia had successfully reduced the number of standards and eliminated calculator use amongst elementary students.

You’d be wrong on both counts.

The Standards of Learning for math are broken into segments – Number and Number Sense, Computation and Estimation, Measurement, Geometry, Probability and Statistics, and Patterns, Functions and Algebra. Under the previous SOLs, Grade 3 students were expected to demonstrate fluency on 25 distinct standards. That number has been reduced to 20 in the 2009 version of the SOLs. But closer examination reveals that only two standards have actually been removed – the two standards on decimals were moved from Grade 3 to Grade 4. The remaining reduction in the count of standards was accomplished by consolidating “like” standards.

For instance, in the Number and Number Sense strand, standards 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3 were simply combined together under standard 3.1 as 3.1 (a), (b), and (c) and the two standards on fractions were combined together as points (a) and (b) under one standard.

In Grade 4 the number of math standards was cut from 22 to 16, yet only two concepts were removed and a number of concepts were actually expanded in scope. The same “technique” appears to have been used in almost every grade.

This is not to imply that the consolidation of standards was poorly done or that the revised standards lower expectations for Virginia students. However, claiming that the goal of reducing the number of standards was met can not be supported because that goal was accomplished by combining standards rather than eliminating unnecessary content.

The standards themselves only tell part of the story; the rest of the story comes from how those standards are implemented. In Virginia the state develops a Curriculum Framework which explains each standard in more detail and provides the essential understanding, knowledge, and skills students are expected to obtain and demonstrate to have “mastered” each standard. While calculators have been removed from the elementary school standards themselves in Virginia, they rear their ugly heads in full force in the Curriculum Framework.

In Virginia, calculators are suggested as an essential learning tool for children starting in kindergarten. In the currently proposed Curriculum Framework for kindergarten, calculators are suggested as an essential tool for teaching kindergarten students how to skip count, for basic addition and subtraction facts for 1st and 2nd grade students, and in 5th grade calculators are recommended for any problem which is “too tedious” to solve by hand. This is in a grade where the most difficult standard calls for dividing a three digit decimal by a three digit decimal where only one digit isn’t a zero (e.g. .888 / .001).

I recognize that calculators are “limited” to skip counting in kindergarten, but I have to ask what educational value is derived from having a 5-year-old hit the plus sign 10 times when he’s learning how to skip count by tens to 100, or what problem a 5th grade student would have to solve that would be so tedious that plugging and chugging the numbers into a calculator provided a better understanding of the concept than solving the problem manually.

There are many states, like Virginia, with strong standards and really bad instructional programs. The opening for poor programs comes when the standards are bogged down with unnecessary content and dumbed down with calculators. That Virginia requires elementary students to use calculators, and allows them on the 5th grade SOL exams, is a travesty.

November 24, 2009 at 4:05 pm

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