With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, our country is entering a new chapter in education reform. After 15 years of work by states and school districts to raise standards, disaggregate data, and close gaps, the federal government is taking the foot off the gas and leaving even more decisions to the states and to local school officials, including those about measures, metrics, incentives, and interventions.
For those of us who have been working with states for many years toward the goal of college and career readiness for all students, this is a period of great excitement and, admittedly, some trepidation. Excitement because there’s a real opportunity for states to build on the good work that’s been done, make midcourse corrections, and spark much-needed innovation. Trepidation because if state leaders and advocates aren’t careful, more than a decade of important work to establish more meaningful, rigorous expectations for our schoolchildren could be undone.
Although the No Child Left Behind Act outlived its relevance, let’s not overlook the significant progress that states made during its time frame. As recently as the early 1990s, very few states even had standards. Expectations for students varied district by district and school by school, which led to great inequities and achievement gaps. One prominent 1994 study showed that students earning A’s in their courses in high-poverty schools were actually achieving at the same level as those earning D’s in low-poverty schools. Translation: Disadvantaged students were held to much lower standards in their classrooms, and the impact of this was borne out by lower college-going and college-success rates.
By the late 1990s, most states had established statewide standards and assessments to raise the floor for all students, but the quality and rigor of those expectations was, at best, mixed.
In 2004, Achieve, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and the Education Trust released a seminal report that called on states to align K-12 standards with college and workplace expectations so that high school prepared students for the real world. This sparked a round of work by states to recalibrate their standards in accordance with higher education and employer expectations.
“College and career readiness” became the goal for all students, and states sought to align their standards with that target. In 2008, this served as the impetus for the Common Core State Standards initiative, when governors and state schools chiefs decided to lock arms and develop consistent “college- and career-ready” standards based on the best models in the states and in other high-achieving countries.
Fast forward to today. Despite the politicization of the issue, most states still have rigorous standards in place, standards that have been validated by higher education and employers as meeting their readiness expectations. This is a major step forward from the previous era of weak to middling standards or even no standards at all.
Higher education institutions and employers need to be working closely with K-12 schools to align expectations."
Here’s the rub: A growing number of states are reopening their standards and rethinking the decisions they previously made about aligned assessments. And all states will be revamping their accountability systems over the next 18 months, in response to ESSA. If these decisions are made on the basis of the wrong criteria, or simply to appease noisy critics on the left or the right, it could set back progress considerably.
Oklahoma is a case in point. In its haste to express its disdain for the common core, the legislature required the state department of education to revise the standards, but forbade them from using any content from the common core. As a result, they hamstrung the educators who were chosen to write the new standards by ruling out a lot of rigorous content.
States that are serious about college and career readiness need to build on the best of what’s been done before, rather than retreat from it. Here’s what it will take to maintain progress:
• Resist pressures to lower the standards. It won’t help students. Maintaining high expectations is critical if students are to be well prepared for the competitive world they’ll enter after high school. States revising standards and assessments should engage higher education and business leaders in the process to ensure alignment with their expectations. This will require genuine, not cursory, engagement. If higher education institutions and employers won’t validate the standards and assessments, they’re not worth adopting, particularly at the high school level.
To their credit, national higher education organizations are speaking out about this. The National Association of System Heads, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, and a new coalition of college and university leaders called Higher Ed for Higher Standards recently released recommendations making a compelling case for higher education’s seat at the table as states rework K-12 standards and assessments.
• Deliver supports and close gaps. Higher standards will have an impact only if we support the students who aren’t meeting them. That requires early-warning systems and targeted interventions. At the high school level, assessments should have college-ready cut scores, and students who haven’t reached the college-ready standard by the end of 11th grade should be provided specialized courses and supports designed to catch them up by graduation. California pioneered this strategy with its Early Assessment Program, and it got results. Today, most states have the tools to do this, but very few have instituted the courses and supports.
• Address the “career” side of “college- and career-ready.” There’s promising new work underway in states to improve the quality and rigor of career-focused programs and scale career pathways that lead to meaningful postsecondary credentials and well-paying jobs. This spring, 24 states and the District of Columbia will receive grants from the Council of Chief State School Officers to advance this work, thanks to an investment by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. States will need to build new measures and metrics into their accountability systems to place greater value on these pathways and credentials as part of a system that encourages and supports college and career readiness for all students.
• Break down the silos. For all of this work to take root, higher education institutions and employers need to be working closely with K-12 schools to align expectations and create smoother transitions for students from high school to college to employment. This is the most important, and most difficult, work of all. States should use policy, resources, and the bully pulpit to incentivize this cross-sector work while removing barriers that stand in its way.
States that successfully address these issues will become the pioneers in the post-No Child Left Behind era. They will successfully bring together the excellence and equity goals that have been at the heart of the reforms for the past two decades. And they will show how their newfound flexibility can be used to accelerate progress rather than upend it.