Policy & Assessment | News

Common Core Standards Set New Nationwide Bar for Student Assessment

A set of national standards in the United States for K-12 math and English could either hold the key to helping schools "share innovations across state borders" or "undermine the role of teachers and administrators," depending on who's assessing the news out of Suwanee, GA. Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwannee was the site where the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers announced the release of the Common Core State Standards this week.

The standards are, according to its authors, a state-led effort to establish a shared set of clear educational goals that states can voluntarily adopt. They would replace what is being widely described as a "patchwork" of state-defined standards. The standards were developed in a year-long process through the two organizations, whose members include governors and chief state school officers, respectively. The results, encompassed in seven PDF files, reflect input and public comments from teachers, educational experts, parents, and school administrators. In total, 48 states participated in developing the standards; Texas and Alaska both abstained.

As an illustration, under the new English standards, a first grader would be able to answer questions about key details in a text, whereas a second grader would be able to answer specific questions, including who, what, where, when, why, and how; a fifth grader would be able to recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in verb tense; and an 11th grader would be able to interpret figures of speech such as hyperbole and paradox and analyze their role in text. In math, a fourth grader would be able to understand decimal notation for fractions and compare decimal fractions; a high schooler would be able to derive and use formulas for finite geometric series.

The U.S. Department of Education wasn't involved in the development of the standards; however, even as the voluntary nature of the standards is being emphasized by the Obama administration, the White House wields considerable financial influence over state adoption. "The Department [of Education] plans to support state implementation efforts by providing federal funds for high quality assessments, professional development to help teachers enhance the knowledge and skills needed to help students master the standards, and research to support continual improvement of the standards and assessments over time," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement.

For example, in the federal Race to the Top competition, states that adopt the standards by August 2, 2010 may have a higher chance at a piece of the $4 billion in federal grant money to be divided among winning states in September. Also, the feds have suggested that access to Title I funds may be tied to state adoption of specific reading and math standards, without specifically naming the Common Core Standards.

Supporters said they view the state standards as a way to position American students to compete globally against other countries where national standards are the norm, such as Japan. However, detractors say standards aren't the driving factor in student success or failure. As evidence, they pointed to countries such as Italy, which also has a national curriculum and which the United States beats in 12th grade science, and Canada and Australia, neither with national standards but whose students do surpass U.S. high schoolers in both math and science.

A number of educational associations and other organizations have put their support behind the initiative, including the College Board, the National Parent Teacher Association, the State Higher Education Executive Officers, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).

"The release of the Common Core Standards will help guarantee that the same high standards and opportunities for achievement are expected of every student in all parts of the country for the first time," said NASBE Executive Director Brenda Welburn. "When every child is able to compete on a level playing field, the chance for every child to succeed is inherently elevated. The National Association of State Boards of Education looks forward to assisting state boards as they move toward that goal."

Likewise, business leaders such as Craig Barrett, Bill Gates, and State Farm Insurance Companies' Edward Rust have stepped forward to show their approval of the measure. "The more states that adopt these college and career based standards, the closer we will be to sharing innovation across state borders and becoming more competitive as a country," said Gates, whose organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has made education a major area of investment.

Educators are divided about the initiative. Kathryn Bell McKenzie, associate professor of K-12 administration in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development at Texas A&M, said that uniform standards would have certain benefits, including a logical progression in learning as students advance through grades as well as consistency between schools if students move between states. Uniform standards also would affect standardized testing and possibly college admissions, as students would possess a common core of knowledge--making it easier to measure and gauge their learning, she said.

Patrick Slattery, professor of culture, curriculum, and instruction in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture at the same university, said he believes that uniform standards would undermine the role of teachers and administrators as professional educators, placing an emphasis on the transfer of information rather than actual teaching. Slattery also said he sees several other drawbacks to the effort, including the marginalizing of local cultural perspectives by virtue of encouraging the development of national curriculum materials, standardized lessons, and national texts.

On the point of teachers losing control over what they teach, a frequently-asked questions document on the Core Standards Web site addressed that very issue: "Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms. Local teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards will continue to make decisions about curriculum and how their school systems are operated."

Now that the standards are published, the lengthy job of adopting them and working them into curriculum and teacher practices state by state, district by district, classroom by classroom, will begin. But people shouldn't be too alarmed, said second grade teacher Anthony McGrann, who wrote in his blog, Seconds, that he finds the standards simple, sensible, clear, and focused on content. "I think of standards as a reference tool. Understanding your students well and knowing where they are in relation to the standards is what I find important."