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Originally published Friday, February 25, 2011 at 4:24 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington should stick to proven state math standards

Guest columnist Clifford F. Mass argues the state Legislature should stick to its new, improved math standards and avoid an untested alternative.

Special to The Times

IF our state Legislature takes no action this session, Washington state will drop its new, improved math standards for an untested experiment: Common Core "national" standards that have never been used in the classroom and for which assessments have yet to be developed.

And there is a high price tag for such a switch, an expense our state can ill afford. Surprisingly, one of the most profound changes in U.S. education in decades has been virtually uncovered by the national media.

Until two years ago, our state had some of the worst math standards in the country, rated "F" by the Fordham Foundation, and lacking many of the essentials found in standards used by the highest-performing nations. That all changed in 2008, when under the impetus of the state Legislature, a new set of standards, based on world-class math requirements, was adopted.

Tens of millions of dollars were spent in the development of these standards, training teachers in their use and acquiring the necessary textbooks. And virtually everyone acknowledged their superiority, including the Fordham Foundation, which gave them an "A."

Amazingly, we are about to throw this all away. Concern over the poor mathematical skills by our nation's youth has inspired a movement for national standards, with strong support from the U.S. Department of Education and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Gates Foundation.

Since it is illegal for the U.S. government to set educational standards, the U.S. Governors Association took up the task, hiring mathematicians and curriculum specialists to develop Common Core national standards.

To give economically strapped states the necessary push toward the new standards and other educational innovations (like charter schools), the Obama administration has dangled a purse of several hundred million dollars through a program called Race to the Top (RTTT). In the hope of securing some of the RTTT cash, our state agreed to tentatively accept the new standards sight unseen last year, with acceptance being permanent if this year's Legislature does nothing.

But there are great risks for our state and its children in the current approach.

First, our state was turned down twice for the RTTT money and will clearly never acquire any. Why? Because we won't accept charter schools, among other issues. Thus, the full cost of scrapping the old standards and acquiring new ones will be taken on by the state and local districts at a time when severe cuts are being taken everywhere.

Second, the new standards are inferior to the ones we already have. Not only has the Fordham Foundation rated ours more highly, but the Common Core standards are poorly written and hard to understand. Standards need to be crystal clear and transparent; their whole goal is to let teachers and student know what they have to learn.

But the problems don't end there. Common Core standards are untested and we would make our students guinea pigs in a grand national experiment. And today there are no assessments for Common Core, one of the most critical elements of instruction.

Is it fair to our teachers and students to jerk them around, switching standards before they have even adjusted to the major changes of two years ago?

Finally, some worry that the advent of Common Core standards means the loss of local control of curricula.

It's not too late. An already existing bill could be amended to solve this problem.

Clifford F. Mass is a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington.

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