SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah joined more than 30 other states on Friday in adopting a common set of education standards intended to ensure that students here can compete with their peers anywhere else in the country.
The state school board unanimously adopted benchmarks called the Common Core State Standards, an initiative spearheaded by the National Governors Association as a way to replace a patchwork of educational goals that vary greatly from state to state with a uniform set of expectations for students.
"It's a big deal because we forever in Utah have struggled to make sure we're competing well with the rest of the nation and our students can go anywhere and be successful," said board vice chairman Dixie Allen. "We hear reports that we are or we're not, but we don't know because we've been functioning in our own little world of standards,"
The standards represent the first time states have joined together to establish what students should know by the time they graduate high school. The project is voluntary and Utah can withdraw at any time, a point that eased concerns here that the standards would somehow be co-opted by the federal government.
Board member Craig Coleman said he was leery of approving the standards until Utah had been eliminated from the U.S. Department of Education's "Race to the Top" grant competition.
He didn't like the idea of tying federal money to participation in the program, which he says effectively makes it a mandate.
"That's what I think is upsetting. It pressures states then to adopt it for other reasons -- monetary reasons -- other than these are good standards," he said. "Do you lose your ability to say these standards aren't working for us or to go back or change them in any other way?"
States are expected to use the standards to revise their curriculum and tests to make learning more uniform across the country. That process will begin in Utah over the next year. The idea is to eliminate inequities in education not only among states but also among districts, meaning students transferring to a school in a different state or district should be at a similar level as their classmates.
Independent researchers have said Utah's English standards will improve under the common standards, while Utah's math standards were recently improved and are above what Common Core calls for. The standards don't prevent Utah from putting additional standards in place that are tougher than Common Core.
Among other things under Common Core, third-graders should understand subject-verb agreement, fifth-graders need to know about metaphors and similes and seventh-graders must understand how to calculate surface area. States that sign up are supposed to use the standards as a base on which to build their curricula and testing.
All but two states -- Alaska and Texas -- signed on to the original concept of Common Core more than a year ago.