Column: Appoaching a cliff? Try backpedaling

The recent action taken by the Arizona Board of Education suggests they are now on the right track educationally.

Within the last year or so, I heard a story on educational standards that suggested backpedaling isn't such a bad idea when you are heading off a cliff. That can be good advice. Other more stubborn or less realistic people might want to stay a course, no matter how ill conceived.

As the new standards craze crossed the country, many states pretty much copied each other or copied states that were getting some good press. In fact, Nevada's Educational Reform Act actually identified the Commonwealth of Virginia as such a state. Well, here we are three years later and we find that Virginia's Standards of Learning are no longer held in such high regard.

Secretary of Education Riley cautioned the states about the new standards being developed. There was, and is, a nationwide concern that the new standards are not appropriate for all students, nor are they realistically attainable during a school year.

During the last legislative session, our own legislators directed the Council to Establish Academic Standards to review those standards for appropriateness and to prioritize them. The council was more concerned with how they would look and would not allow standards to be judged for appropriateness. When the math writing team overwhelmingly voted to delete some of the standards, Debbie Smith, council chair running for the legislature, decided that an 18-to-2 vote was too close a vote for the writing team to make such a decision. Ms. Smith, cognizant of her run for the legislature, has put her own political career ahead of the students.

Looking across the country, we see a lot of states took the advice of Secretary Riley by reexamining their standards. Achieve, a group formed by the nation's business leaders and governors, did a 20-state study and found a major disparity between what states claimed as their new standards and what was being tested. They described that disparity as "major slippage."

The Council to Establish Academic Standards has paid a private Washington D.C. based firm with connections to Nevada about $500,000 as a consultant to develop these standards. What a waste of money.

Arizona's new standards in mathematics looked remarkably like Nevada's new standards. Those standards were piloted last year in Arizona in preparation for the real test scheduled in 2003. Unfortunately, only 11 percent of their students passed that test. The governor and state board wanted to hold firm - stay the course. Since then, the actual test and new math standards came under public scrutiny.

The board reconsidered and last week voted to refine their new standards in mathematics. Arizona had the good sense to look around the country to see what was happening. They also listened to Secretary Riley's advise and they revisited their standards to ensure they were both appropriate and attainable.

The end result of their study, they have developed a more focused curriculum in mathematics. They decreased the number of standards in mathematics from 143 to 99.

For all you non-math people, that's a decrease approximating 30 percent in the number of standards. And they will only test between 75 and 80 of those for high school graduation. Their new high school exit exam will only test basic algebra and geometry; very much like Nevada's current high school proficiency exam.

Other states are looking at awarding differentiated diplomas as a way around implementing inappropriate standards. They, like Nevada's Council to establish Academic Standards, would rather go off the cliff than be seen as backpedaling.

Arizona did the right thing. They developed a more focused curriculum that is both appropriate and reasonably attainable. The response of the Nevada Standards Council is to ask the legislature for 10s of millions of dollars to extend the school year so teachers have a chance to cover the standards they adopted. What they should have done was review, revise and prioritize these new standards as directed by the last legislature. Arizona did the right thing in revising their standards. Nevada did a stupid thing by not following the advice of the legislature that funds them by reviewing and revising the new standards.

(Bill Hanlon, a Las Vegas educator, is a former member of the Nevada Board of Education. His e-mail address is


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