Wisconsin students can count on one hand the number of times they'll still have to take the math section — or any section — of the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, the annual weeklong test whose results for 2009-10 were scheduled to be released Wednesday.
That's because the WKCE is expected to give way in a few years to tests based on new national academic standards proposed last month that could become final this spring.
The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and all 50 U.S. states except Alaska and Texas in the fall signed on to the development of the Common Core State Standards for math and English, which spell out what the nation's public schoolchildren should be taught from kindergarten through high school.
When the final standards are unveiled, probably in late May, Wisconsin likely will adopt them, said Sue Grady, executive assistant to the state school superintendent.
"Our intention is that we will adopt those standards as our state standards, and as a result, those state standards will then shape the development of new (tests)," Grady said. "Also, those standards will be used to shape curriculum that is offered in the school districts around the state."
Drafted by educators convened by the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the standards could later be expanded to include science and social studies. They outline, in general, what students should learn year by year, replacing a patchwork of expectations today that vary from state to state.
Kindergartners, for example, would be expected to identify characters, settings and key events in a story; high schoolers would need to read and analyze texts at the level of William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" and Shakespeare's "Macbeth."
In math, third-graders should be "describing situations and solving problems with multiplication and division," while eighth-graders would be expected to understand the Pythagorean Theorem, and plane and solid geometry.
A draft of the standards was released in March and a final version will incorporate ideas from educators across the country, said an NGA spokeswoman.
Wisconsin has embraced the national standards in part because sharing curriculum and test development costs with other states can save money, said Jennifer Thayer, assistant state superintendent for reading and student achievement.
"The other piece that is so key is that our students are very mobile," she said. "Students move from one state to another, and having that same type of emphasis on math and language arts, which includes reading, is so very important."
Madison Schools Superintendent Dan Nerad also praised the Common Core effort.
"I think, periodically, standards need to be revisited," Nerad said. "I think this creates an excellent forum for that conversation - because we can look across not only our district, but our state, our country, and get a sense of where those standards are going and how we need to modify our curriculum and modify our assessments."
But Gary Cook, an associate scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the state's former testing chief, thinks the standards present too much material for teachers to thoroughly teach in a single year.
"What has happened with state standards in the past 25 years is that they've become this laundry list of things, and it's really hard to sort out what's the most important thing in this laundry list to teach," Cook said. The common standards "did sort through the laundry list, but it's still a very long list. I think it could be shortened."
High stakes for teachers
Thayer said she can't predict what form the WKCE's replacement will take because so much is in flux right now. Wisconsin will consider joining a consortium of states to compete for $350 million in federal money to develop new school tests — but first wants to see what criteria the U.S. Department of Education set out for the program and how Congress changes key federal education laws, which are up for reauthorization soon, she said.
The WKCE, which is taken by public school students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10, has been widely criticized for its lag time — the tests are administered in November but districtwide results don't come out until April. Individual student test scores were mailed out in March.
The test also has taken a hit for measuring a school's performance at one point in time, rather than charting individual student growth.
"I'm just not a fan of a test where there are no stakes for the students, and high stakes for teachers. I think that's sort of an unwinnable situation," said Jim Wollack, director of testing and evaluation services at UW-Madison and a parent of two school-aged children.
The state Department of Public Instruction has stopped developing material for the WKCE, said DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper. But in the fall, students will have to take it at least one more time.
"We hope that the fog clears within the next few months," Thayer said. "We expect that within two to three months we'll have a much clearer vision of exactly where we're going. Right now there are many pieces that are unclear and we don't know all those dynamics that are changing on the federal level."