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Schools prepare for new academic standards
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Language arts teachers in the St. Paul school district gathered last week at Johnson High School for a meeting on the state's new academic standards. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Minnesota's public schools will spend this school year retooling their academic standards and graduation requirements. Teachers are implementing new reading and math standards, after state lawmakers repealed the former standards in the Profile of Learning. But elements of the show-what-you-know Profile system could linger as schools make the transition.

St. Paul, Minn. — Language arts teachers in the St. Paul school district gathered last week at Johnson High School for a meeting on the state's new academic standards. Micheal Thompson of the district's Professional Development Center outlined the pending changes. Teachers will have to begin adjusting curriculum at every grade level to line up with the new requirements. But Thompson says the transition won't affect current high school students.

"Really nothing changes, because we can't change anything substantial for those classes. We can't change the rules in the middle of the game," says Thompson. "What changes is that we're going to be able to streamline some of the record-keeping that the Profile of Learning required -- which is no longer required, even for those classes."

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Image Micheal Thompson

The changes will come more quickly in elementary and middle schools. This year's eighth graders will be the first to graduate under the new standards in 2008.

Under the Profile of Learning, students demonstrated what they learned through projects and performances. The aim was to acquire broad skills and concepts that could be applied to a variety of learning situations. The Profile also de-emphasized textbook memorization.

The new standards are specific expectations for the knowledge and skills students should have in core subjects at the end of a given school year. For example, seventh graders should indentify and explain analogies, similes and metaphors. Mary Cathryn Ricker, an English teacher at St. Paul's Cleveland Middle School, says that's a big change.

"In reading the standards, it looks more like a checklist," Ricker says. "I read through the standards and they're exhaustive for seventh and eighth grade. And it feels like it's this checklist of things to do. I don't really see a lot of opportunities for higher-order thinking on my students' part."

Ricker says she'll continue to use elements of the Profile in her classes. She won't be alone. The Richfield School Board recently voted to rescind all district policies associated with the Profile of Learning. Superintendent Barbara Devlin says the action eliminated the burdensome record-keeping requirements of the old system. But she says the district is not banning teachers from using the Profile philosophy or its classroom practices.

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Image Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke

"For those hands-on learning kinds of activities that they've developed while implementing the Profile, if they are aligned with the new standards and help the teachers determine that they are good for the kids, and they advance the students' learning, we encourage them to continue using those things," Devlin says.

School districts are expected to have the reading and math standards fully implemented a year from now. That's when new state tests are planned in third through eighth grade, and high school, to measure how well students are meeting the new expectations.

State Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke says the new standards are simple and easy to understand. She says teachers will benefit from the changes.

"In the past, under the Profile, there was the expectation of performance packages, which told teachers not what to teach but how to teach," Yecke says. "With the new academic standards, we're saying here are the goals for the end of the school year. You, as a professional, now can decide how you're going to set the pathway to help your students reach those goals. So, it's way of elevating the profession I think, because we do need to trust our teachers."

Yecke is now turning her attention to the next phase of academic standards. The committees developing new requirements for science and social studies are expected to finish their first drafts later this week.

A series of public hearings are planned this fall before the proposals are sent to the Legislature for final approval. Schools would begin implementing those standards next year.

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