Q&A: Arizona’s new English Language Arts and math standards explained

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Back view of schoolboy writing math formula on green blackboard
Arizona recently changed its English language arts and math learning standards for the first time in seven years.

Last month, the State Board of Education adopted new English Language Arts and mathematics learning standards — the first update in seven years. The new K-12 standards formally replace Common Core.

The biggest change is that third-, fourth- and fifth-graders must learn cursive handwriting. Other changes include a bigger emphasis on phonics instruction, telling time and understanding money. We asked Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education, what this means for Arizona kids and families:

Arizona students must now learn cursive handwriting by fifth grade. Is there a generation of Arizona kids who didn’t learn cursive, and what is the argument for teaching it?

The new English Language Arts standards contain standards for the reading and writing of cursive in third through fifth grades. Neither the 2010 nor the 2004 Arizona ELA standards contained standards for writing cursive, so this is the first time that it has been a required skill. However, numerous schools and districts across the state (had previously) made the choice to teach cursive as part of their curricula.

The English Language Arts Working Group (part of the Arizona Standards Development Committee) found that the inclusion of cursive writing standards is supported by current brain research. While producing legible writing quickly may feel like an automatic process for adults, for children the development of handwriting is a complex task requiring the coordination of cognitive, motor and neuromotor skills.

When writing in cursive, the word becomes a unit rather than a series of separate strokes, and correct spelling is more likely to be retained. Cursive (has also been found to engage) more cognitive resources than keyboarding. In classroom studies, new research demonstrates that writing by hand allows students to process and summarize lecture notes through reflection and synthesis that leads to better understanding and retention than keyboarding.

What were the main changes in the way children will now learn about money and telling time?

The Arizona Mathematics Standards provide what students will know, understand and be able to do regarding mathematical content knowledge by the end of a grade or course. The standards do not define the way a student will learn about a specific mathematical concept or idea. The way students will learn about money and time is defined at the local level by the school and district.

Time standards begin in first grade by telling and writing time in hours and half-hours and progress to second grade, where students write time in 5-minute increments and add in correct use of a.m. and p.m. Students in third grade work with word problems that deal with time and intervals of time to the nearest minute. Students in fourth grade apply what they know in a problem-solving context.

Money standards begin in first grade by identifying coins by name and values and progress to solving word problems that include collections of money — including dollars bills, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies — in second grade. Students are also using correct symbols in third grade as a distinction between dollars and cents. Fourth-grade students (will solve) word problems that utilize the four operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of money.

The Arizona State Board of Education came up with these standards after rejecting Common Core standards — but how different are these from Common Core?

The Arizona English Language Arts Standards and Mathematics Standards (adopted in December 2016) were crafted by Arizona educators from public, charter, and post-secondary institutes of higher education. The working groups collectively included more than 200 educators from 10 counties and represented 60 Arizona school districts. The working groups reviewed approximately 9,000 public comments and contributed more than 7,000 hours during the standards revision processes. The Arizona English Language Arts Standards and Mathematics Standards represent what Arizonans believe is in the best interest of Arizona students.

Differences between the 2010 adopted standards and the 2016 adopted standards are different at each grade level and course. Changes to the standards were based on clarity, measurability and variability in cognitive demand across standards and progression of knowledge across grade levels and courses. On average there is a 30 percent change in the standards across a grade level of course. Some grade levels and courses have upwards of a 50 percent change in standards across the total.

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