Common Academic Standards Get Influential Push

By Michele McNeil — December 19, 2008 6 min read
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The push for common state standards in reading and math got a high-profile boost today as organizations representing governors and state education chiefs formally put their weight behind the goal of aligning academic expectations in those subjects across states and benchmarking the standards against those of other countries.

A new report from the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the school reform group Achieve Inc. also went a step further and urged states to push for upgrading the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, to make it compatible with international assessments. That would let states see how their students stack up against their peers in other countries.

The governors, education chiefs, and Achieve will be joined in what they’re calling the “Common State Standards Initiative” by the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which focuses on high school reform, and the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership in Chapel Hill, N.C.

No state is in line to implement all facets of the report, but many states already are tackling elements of it, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the CCSSO. For instance, Minnesota and Massachusetts are participating in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS. And 34 states are working with Achieve to improve and align their standards.

“The real purpose of this report was to say to states that it’s not enough to look internally anymore,” Mr. Wilhoit said.

This work is the product of an advisory group on international benchmarking co-chaired by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat; Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican; and Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. None of them, however, attended a press conference today to tout the release of the report. (“Benchmarks Momentum on Increase,” March 12, 2008.)

An open question is who will continue to help carry the torch for the effort now that Gov. Napolitano has been tapped for President-elect Barach Obama’s cabinet as secretary of homeland security. If confirmed, she will leave the governor’s office early next year. (“Schools Advocate Gets Security Job,” Dec. 10, 2008.)

Although there may not be a lot of upfront costs to states to improve their standards and re-examine their testing systems, today’s press conference comes at a time when states are facing significant budget problems—and making cuts to K-12 education. As to whether the report will get lost amid the dire economic news, Raymond C. Scheppach, the NGA executive director, said, “I’m a little worried about that, but this education issue has really remained at the top level of governors’ agendas, so I’m hopeful.”

Troubling Trends

In its call to action, the report lays out oft-cited statistics raising concern about the academic performance of U.S. students and its impact on international competitiveness.

For example, the nation’s high school graduation rate, which was the best in the industrialized world 40 years ago, now is 18th among 24 industrialized countries. The United States ranks in the bottom third for student performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, in math, science, and problem solving. Reading scores on PISA—which attempts to test students’ ability to analyze and apply information—rank the United States 15th out of 30 countries.

The report also says that big pharmaceutical companies, such as Merck & Co. and Eli Lilly and Co., are not only turning to India and China for jobs, but also for research and development.

“The race is on among nations to create knowledge-fueled innovation economies,” the report says. “American education has not adequately responded to these new challenges.”

A common set of standards, as the report envisions, are already being developed by Achieve in connection with its American Diploma Project, a coalition of 34 states working to improve college and workforce readiness through academic standards. (“Achieve Finds Common Core of Standards in States,” Aug. 13, 2008.)

The Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which is a big proponent of standards, applauded the states’ efforts but also warned that these common standards must be rigorous. “Now what’s key is that the process lead to a race to the top rather than a slide toward the lowest common denominator,” Michael J. Petrilli, Fordham’s vice president for national programs and policy, said in a statement.

The report also calls on states to develop a common pool of assessments from which they can draw, so they can measure their students’ progress on the internationally benchmarked standards.

As part of that, the groups want the National Assessment Governing Board, which runs NAEP, to upgrade the test so that results are comparable with international assessments such as PISA, TIMSS, and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS.

The report acknowledges that aligning NAEP with international assessments would be most difficult with regard to PISA, which tests 15-year-olds and places great emphasis on problem-solving and real-world context. In contrast, NAEP tests school-based content in grades 4 and 8.

In light of how test-weary many states and educators have become, Dane Linn, the NGA’s education division director, said there should be “an assessment system that is internationally benchmarked but that is streamlined,” Mr. Linn said during the press conference. That could mean, for example, embedding additional questions into existing tests.

Steps Outlined

Though the standards and assessment components are the most developed and concrete aspects of today’s report, it lays out three other action steps.

To go along with common standards, the report urges that states leverage their influence to streamline textbooks, digital media, curricula, and other instructional tools so they’re aligned with those standards. States also should improve teacher quality through recruiting, preparing, and supporting teachers, and reexamine how assessments are used for accountability, the report says.

It also calls for states to be more aggressive in closing the achievement gaps between students from disadvantaged groups, including those from minority groups and low-income families, and other students, citing research that suggests the importance of increasing all students’ skill levels, not just those of the nation’s high-performing students.

As if to preempt critics, the report dismisses the notion that the country’s demographics are to blame for the gap in achievement between minority and nonminority students because other countries with similar demographics post better student achievement scores. In an effort refute such assertions, the report points out that African-American students in the United States perform worse than do minorities in most other industrialized countries on 2006 PISA science tests, behind Mexico, Turkey, and Greece, for example.

The report seeks to protect state turf by declaring that common standards are a state responsibility—and not a federal one. However, it calls on the federal government to give states more flexibility in using federal money so the action steps can be implemented.

It also calls on the U.S. Department of Education to help lead research into effective practices for international benchmarking and assessment, review the feasibility of adapting NAEP, and recommend how to generate internationally benchmarked test results by state.

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Common Academic Standards Get Influential Push


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