Massachusetts Raises Concerns by Swapping State Curriculum for National Standards

Massachusetts approved a plan Wednesday to scrap its state curriculum standards for national ones amid fierce opposition from critics who say the new guidelines will “erode” student achievement in a state that already churns out some of nation’s highest test scores.

The state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 9-0 to adopt the new federal Common Core Standards -- promoted by the Obama administration – as part of its application to qualify for a portion of the government’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top funding.

Massachusetts is one of several states submitting applications for Round 2 of the program’s grants. The billion-dollar education initiative, funded by Education Department as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, was announced last summer and seeks to strengthen the nation’s education system through a number of so-called reforms – including the establishment of a national curriculum.

But the new guidelines, which specify what is taught in math and English classes at each grade level, have been roundly criticized by opponents who claim they will lower the bar in Massachusetts.

"I am extremely dismayed by that decision," said Charlie Baker, a Republican gubernatorial candidate and former member of the state’s board of education. "This change is very high-risk for Massachusetts for which I see very little reward."

"We know what works here," he added. "The possibility of becoming more like everybody else, instead of continuing to maintain our competitive position, is quite real here."

More concerning to Baker and others is that the decision to implement the national standards "takes away the state’s ability to fundamentally own the way it teaches and tests its students."

The Pioneer Institute, a fiscally conservative educational watchdog group in Boston, has also opposed the Common Core standards, releasing a report that lists a number of concerns with the guidelines.

Jim Stergios, the institute’s executive director, claims the standards are weaker on vocabulary and writing requirements – and place a much greater emphasis on non-fiction reading over works of literature.

"They reduce literary content markedly," he said.

Stergios also charged that the guidelines push back the grade level at which students learn Algebra 1 (Massachusetts currently requires students to learn it in 8th grade), which he called a "huge weakness."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and a number of education groups, however, have heralded the new curriculum, arguing that the guidelines are comparable to Massachusetts’ standards – if not stronger in some areas.

"They’re equivalent in rigor,” Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., said in an interview with FoxNews.com.

"There's no state that’s making a substantive mistake to adopt them," he said.

But, Finn cautioned, implementation is key. "You can have good standards and poor results," he said. "If the tests that follow from the Common Core turn out to be easier to pass than yeah, there’s a problem."

Michael Cohen, president of Washington-based Achieve, an educational nonprofit that helped develop the guidelines, said the Common Core "builds on and approves upon" the rigorous standards that Massachusetts already has in place. There are more similarities than differences between the two sets of standards, Cohen noted, and states are permitted to revise up to 15 percent of the Common Core. 

"Massachusetts had more influence -- had more engagement over the standards than any other state," he added.

The curriculum was developed by a consortium of states and has so far been adopted by 26. Fourteen others are expected to approve it but a handful of states have opted out. 

In a letter penned to Education Secretary Arne Duncan in May, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said he had "serious concerns" with the national guidelines.

"The Virginia Standards of Learning and the corresponding state accountability and testing program have a proven track record of success, spanning four gubernatorial administrations of both political parties,” McDonnell wrote. “I cannot support setting aside the proven Virginia Standards of Learning program, nor commit to adopt these common core standards that have not been completed, implemented, or fully evaluated.”

Virginia Education Secretary Gerard Robinson reiterated McDonnell’s sentiments in an interview Wednesday with FoxNews.com but said the state will “wait and see what’s been tested.”

“We’ll continue to be at the table for the Common Core discussions,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report