Reading & Literacy

Academics Find Common Standards Fit for College

By Catherine Gewertz — August 25, 2011 8 min read
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Instructors of entry-level college courses consider the common standards in mathematics and English/language arts good reflections of the skills students must master to be successful in courses in a range of disciplines, according to a survey released last week.

The study, “Reaching the Goal,” aims to verify a key premise of the academic standards that have been adopted by all but five states: that they prepare students for college by defining the skills and knowledge that are crucial to success in entry-level coursework. Although college instructors served on the panels that crafted the standards, the new survey is believed to be the only study to test that premise by putting the question directly to higher-education faculty members.

“It suggests strong support for the validity of the common-core standards, in terms of their applicability to college courses and their importance, and the appropriate level of challenge for students to be successful,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University who focuses on college-readiness issues and serves on the board of directors of the research group that produced the report. “Nobody has cross-checked it with the actual people who teach these courses, until now.”

Rating the Common Core

Researchers asked college instructors whether the common standards in English/language arts and mathematics are applicable to the entry-level courses they teach. Instructors who found them applicable then rated the standards, and substandards, on a scale of 1 to 4, from least important to most important for students to master in order to succeed in the course. Survey participants rated a total of 113 standards and substandards in English/language arts and 200 in math.


SOURCE: Educational Policy Improvement Center

In conducting the study, a team led by David T. Conley, the chief executive officer of the Educational Policy Improvement Center, in Eugene, Ore., posed two types of questions to the instructors of 1,897 courses at 944 two- and four-year colleges across the country.

First, the “applicability” question: Do the high school standards reflect material that will be covered or reviewed, or considered a prerequisite, in your course?

If instructors answered yes, they went on to the “importance” questions, rating on a scale of 1 to 4 how crucial mastery of each broad “strand” or “conceptual category” of standards—and scores of standards and substatements within them—is to success in their courses.

Across Disciplines

The instructors in the study come not just from the math and English/language arts disciplines. They teach courses in other general education areas such as science and social studies, as well as courses often associated with career pathways in health care, computer technology, and business management. All were asked to review both the math and English/language arts standards, on the theory that many skills articulated there were meant to cut across the disciplines.

Standards in English/language arts earned strong ratings for importance, with every area except one rated between 3 and 3.3. The math standards received somewhat lower ratings, mostly between 2.6 and 3, a difference that might be attributable, Mr. Conley said, to their greater degree of specialization.

Digging deeper into the results yields variations that shed light on the importance instructors from the different disciplines place on the 300-plus ideas they evaluated. Those variations, Mr. Conley said, can inform how curriculum is designed for the standards and how they are taught and tested.

“When we start thinking about what to teach and what to test, the variations become far more important than the generalizations,” said Mr. Conley. Those variations suggest that even students who don’t master every standard can excel in college, he said.

“Are you better off with a strong core of knowledge? Of course,” Mr. Conley said. “The more you know, the more options you have in college. But even if you don’t master all the standards, you still have good options.”

The math standards to earn the highest and most interdisciplinary applicability ratings were those in the “mathematical practices,” which include skills such as applying math knowledge to everyday problems. Even some English/language arts instructors found those standards relevant to their courses, with two in 10 giving the thumbs-up. Six in 10 of those in social science did so as well, along with three-quarters or more of those in the other disciplines.

In English/language arts, the speaking and listening skills were the ones seen as the most highly applicable by instructors across the disciplines. Standards in literary reading got somewhat lower applicability ratings. But those focusing on informational reading were seen as highly relevant. Instructors from non-English/language arts courses, in particular, saw the standards for reading in specific disciplines, such as science and social studies, as applicable to their courses.

Prioritizing Skills

When it came to rating the importance of the standards and statements within the standards, some were seen as far more important than others.

Within the speaking and listening standards, for instance, instructors said it was very important for students to be able to “come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study [and] explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research ... to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.” They placed less value on the ability to “evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.”

Within math practices, raters placed the most value on “making sense of problems and persevering in solving them” and the least on “looking for and expressing regularity in repeated reasoning,” though both still received above-average-importance ratings. Within the geometry standard, instructors placed more importance on using volume formulas to solve problems than on the ability to prove that all circles are similar.

The appraisals of the math standards by instructors in varied fields are “bound to raise the question” of how much math students need to succeed in various college majors and fields of work, a question that has been debated by experts.

“Many subjects don’t require math beyond Algebra 2,” said Mr. Kirst of Stanford. “This [study] expands the dialogue and perspective on that to many other teachers. Math teachers want everybody to know a lot of math, but they’re not the ones that have a handle on what is needed in all these other fields.”

Another central idea of the standards—that they are rigorous enough to prepare students for college—was explored in an optional question. Ninety-six percent of the responding instructors agreed that the standards were at a level of rigor sufficient for preparation for their courses.

But even as the study buttressed key ideas about the standards’ reflection of college readiness, some of its strongest language was reserved for areas they do not cover. Mr. Conley, widely known for his work detailing strategies and habits of mind that are important for success in college, such as persistence and study skills, cautioned against viewing the standards as a complete recipe for college preparation.

“Defining a set of standards as ‘college and career ready’ that overlook ... dimensions beyond content knowledge will result in assuming that students who have achieved a particular score on the common assessments [of the standards] are fully ready for college and career studies when, in fact, they may possess only a subset of the knowledge and skills, strategies and techniques necessary to be fully ready for postsecondary success,” he and his co-authors write in the study.

Donna Ekal, the associate provost for undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, agreed that students’ mastery of academic standards is a misleading gauge of their readiness for college or work. It’s important to know what college instructors consider crucial to success in their courses, she said, but researchers should also ask students what skills proved pivotal to their college success.

“If you asked students, they would certainly say content is important, but we hear an awful lot, too, about time management and about unrealistic expectations. Many students expect college to be like a 13th year of high school,” said Ms. Ekal, whose 23,000-student campus has worked for 20 years with local school districts, city officials, and the community college to align K-12 work with college.

“I think it would be especially important to ask the students that did well in high school and came to college and weren’t so successful, what was the disconnect?”

Creating assessments that are informed by college instructors’ views involves an inherent “tension” in ensuring that the tests cover what is important to learn in high school, without shortchanging the more narrowly focused math and literacy skills that meet higher education’s definition of what’s required for success in entry-level, credit-bearing courses, said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that has worked with colleges and K-12 to shape academic expectations and tests for states in its American Diploma Project network.

A key tenet of the common assessments, which two groups of states are designing for the common standards, is that colleges could support their use for course-placement decisions. Achieve is a project-management partner of one of those two state consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC.

Achieve’s research showed that college-placement tests in math tend to focus heavily on algebra, since that is often the first credit-bearing course in college, Mr. Cohen said. Consequently, a high school math test designed for the standards will have to focus sufficiently on algebra to predict success in first-year, credit-bearing courses, but also must include other areas of math in the standards, he said. Number and quantity, for instance, was an area of math that received as high an applicability rating from the college instructors in the study as algebra did. Statistics and probability was close behind.

Guidance for Policymakers

As school districts and states work to reshape curricula and tests to reflect the common standards, college instructors’ views of the relative importance of the standards—and more narrowly focused goals within each standard—can help them prioritize, Mr. Kirst said.

“This is very useful for state policymakers like me,” said Mr. Kirst, the president of the California state board of education. “We can’t cover all the standards in the common core equally. We cannot test all of them equally. As you look through what people think is more or less important, it gives you some guidance as to what may be the things you have to teach and assess in depth versus those you assess in less depth or not at all.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Higher Ed.: Common Core College-Ready


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