College & Workforce Readiness

States Promise Higher Standards for NCLB Leniency

By Catherine Gewertz — December 14, 2011 8 min read
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In hopes of getting relief from key tenets of the No Child Left Behind Act, 11 states are proposing large-scale efforts to train their educators in new academic standards, create or oversee development of new instructional resources, and redesign their testing systems.

The proposals represent plans from the first round of applicants in the U.S. Department of Education’s waiver program, which allows states to escape requirements such as bringing all students to proficiency on state tests by 2014.

In exchange, however, states must establish new accountability systems that win federal approval, and the first-round batch of applications shows a wide range of such plans. More states are expected to apply for waivers by the second-round deadline of Feb. 21. (“NCLB Waiver Plans Offer Hodgepodge of Grading Systems,” Dec. 7, 2011.)

States seeking waivers must also show that they have rigorous academic standards, a solid plan to transform standards into good instruction, and tests that ensure students are ready for college or good jobs.

They can meet the standards requirement by adopting the Common Core State Standards, which all but four states have done. They can meet the testing requirements by belonging to a multistate consortium that is designing common tests for those standards. All but five states are participating in those projects.

Alternatively, states can demonstrate high standards by having their higher education systems certify that students who master them can skip remedial college courses. They can meet the testing requirement by presenting a plan to design high-quality assessments, or by submitting their current tests to the federal Education Department for peer review.

Minnesota is the only one of the applicants that did not adopt the common standards in both mathematics and English/language arts and is not participating in designing common assessments. It adopted only the English/language arts standards. Minnesota’s higher education system has certified that mastery of its math standards will allow students to enroll in credit-bearing coursework, the state says in its application. It also says it will submit its assessments in both subjects for peer review.

Every other state applying for a waiver cites its adoption of the common standards and its participation in common-assessment design as evidence that it is meeting the Education Department’s “college- and career-ready” requirements for standards and tests.

Implementation Plans

States sought to show that they are analyzing what it takes to put the new standards into action and deploy solid gauges of student learning. Some implementation plans are far more detailed than others; New Mexico’s description runs three pages. Minnesota’s is 37.

College/Career-Ready Standards

To receive waivers from key tenets of the No Child Left Behind Act, states must demonstrate they have adopted “college- and career-ready standards,” and have developed solid plans to implement them. They must also show that they have, or are devising, high-quality assessments to measure student achievement and growth. Highlights of what states are describing and proposing include:


Colorado: Adopted the common standards. Developing a “regional, content-specific” approach to blending standards, instruction, and assessment. “Content collaboratives” facilitated by the state education department will engage teachers in creating and disseminating standards-based formative assessments and instructional materials.

New Jersey: Adopted the common standards. Developing an optional model K-12 curriculum based on the new standards, with end-of-unit assessments, model lessons, and formative tasks. A statewide coalition of curriculum experts, and experts in new regional centers, will help districts transition to new standards.

Tennessee: Adopted the common standards. Conducting “crosswalk” work to compare previous standards with new ones and crafting content for professional development. Has held sessions for more than 4,000 principals and supervisors on the new standards, and has begun classroom-implementation training for K-2 teachers.


Massachusetts: Participating in designing common-assessments planned for 2014-15. To transition to those tests, the state plans to phase into its current state test items based on the new standards starting in 2011-12. By 2013-14, all math and English/language arts items will reflect the new standards. The state is also developing additional, curriculum-embedded performance-based test items in English/language arts, math, science, and history/social science.

Florida: Participating in common-assessment design. In partnership with its state colleges and universities, Florida designed a new college-readiness exam for 11th graders that allows those who reach a given cutoff score to skip remedial work in college.

Colorado: Participating in common-assessment design. It plans no changes to its current tests. Instead, the state is “pursuing multiple avenues,” including soliciting bids for its own new state tests and using a new, transitional exam until that test is finalized.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; State Applications

In response to questions from the Education Department, states described their work to compare the new standards with their previous sets and disseminate information about the new requirements through conferences, meetings, and workshops, both face-to-face and online.

Tennessee reports a plan for “multiyear” professional development, focusing particularly on the math standards and the new requirements for literacy skills across disciplines. Florida and New Mexico say they will turn first to training teachers of younger students and move upward through the grades over the next couple of years.

Georgia used the state’s public-television system to conduct a common-standards orientation this fall, aiming to reach not only school staff members, but also parents and community leaders, it says in its application. It is also developing a more targeted series of learning sessions for administrators, teachers, and instructional leaders, by subject and grade level. The English/language arts sessions will address the new standards’ demands that students read increasingly complex text and develop literacy skills specific to subjects such as science and social studies.

Georgia decided to conduct all training face-to-face or through streamed video with curriculum specialists because it has found a “train-the-trainer” model ineffective, it says in its application.

Massachusetts reported that it held conferences, professional-development sessions, and regional events for early education, K-12, and higher education to disseminate the new standards, and featured them at its annual curriculum and instruction summit.

While states are working to reach educators, the applications show signs that teachers were often the last to be reached. Indiana, for instance, includes charts detailing the training being provided for curriculum directors, instructional coaches, and administrators at the district and building levels. But it doesn’t provide much detail on its plans for teachers.

Kathleen Porter-Magee, who oversees standards work at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, reviewed the states’ waiver applications and is concerned about their professional-development plans. They seem too focused on identifying gaps between states’ previous standards and the new ones, she said.

“This is actually an opportunity to step back and say, ‘Where have we gotten standards-based instruction and assessment and achievement wrong, and what broad changes can we make?’ ” said Ms. Porter-Magee, a former charter-school-network curriculum director.

“Are we helping teachers think through how long-term lesson planning will be different? Are we actually showing them what close reading of grade-appropriate text looks like? I see a piecemeal approach that assumes that most of what states are already doing is OK, with a few tweaks to specifics.”

Crafting Curricula

Many states report efforts to craft—or help districts craft—curriculum and instructional materials. Massachusetts devised instructional modules on key aspects of the standards, such as the “mathematical practices,” which emphasize conceptual understanding, and plans to have at least 100 model instructional units available by 2014, it said.

It has begun training 300 teachers in designing curriculum units and performance assessments, and it plans sessions for teachers of students with disabilities and those learning English, the application says. Massachusetts also reported collaborating with professional-development providers to align materials to the common standards.

And the state reported that it plans to revise its curriculum frameworks for science/technology, engineering, history/social science, arts, health, and foreign language to incorporate the cross-disciplinary literacy skills from the new standards. It developed new prekindergarten standards in math and literacy. And it mailed 170,000 copies of its revised K-12 math and literacy curriculum frameworks to districts “so individual teachers would have hard copies of the frameworks to use for their independent classroom alignment work.”

Kentucky is working to build an online resource that will house the standards, along with exemplar lessons, instructional materials, and video podcasts by higher education faculty on teaching common-standards content. Georgia state specialists are producing teacher guides, instructional units, and sample tasks to post on the state education department’s website.

Testing Systems

Since the common assessments won’t be fully operational until 2014-15, states were asked to describe how they will alter their current testing systems to reflect the expectations of more-rigorous standards. Some reported plans to embed in their own tests pilot items from the two assessment consortia, or items that emulate the kind of questions or tasks likely to appear on those tests.

Tennessee said that it is working with the Princeton, N.J.-based ETS and Pearson to revise some items in its state tests. Oklahoma will begin piloting “PARCC-like items"—a reference to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers consortium it belongs to—within its state assessment in 2011-12, and will circulate them among educators to help them with lesson planning and formative assessment. Indiana will pilot the interim use of the SAT’s and ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks while it works with its current test vendor to develop items that reflect the common standards’ expectations, it says.

Some states plan to raise test-cutoff scores or use outside exam scores such as those from the SAT or ACT as proxies for college- or career-readiness. Florida reported that it is working this year to raise the “cut score” and type of questions on its state test and Algebra 1 end-of-course exam. Like other states that reported similar work, Florida says it anticipates student pass rates dropping as a result.

‘Unbroken Chain’

Driven by the 2009 passage of sweeping school reform legislation, Kentucky reported that it has been implementing a new assessment system aligned to the college-readiness benchmarks of the ACT college-entrance exam, which all juniors in Kentucky take yearly. The presidents of the state’s colleges and universities agreed to allow students meeting those benchmarks to move directly into credit-bearing work, the state’s waiver application says.

Scores from the ACT’s EXPLORE and PLAN tests, given to all Kentucky 8th and 10th graders, respectively, will serve as early indicators of students’ progress toward the ACT benchmarks. Scores on the ACT’s Quality Core end-of-course tests in four subjects required for high school graduation can be used for students’ final grades. The system, it says, provides for the first time an “unbroken chain of links “between high school and college expectations.

Common-standards advocates argue that the standards reflect college and career readiness because they were created with input from higher education and business. The ACT and SAT have derived their readiness benchmarks from correlations with good performance in college coursework. But some caution against such equations, at least for now.

“Defining college readiness is such a big question that states are relying on the common standards and tests to answer it for them,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which has followed the NCLB law and common-standards implementation. “But I’m skeptical that we know what any of these things mean until we see how these students make it through college.”

He added that even with that dose of skepticism, he believes the new standards and forthcoming assessments are moving students “in the right direction,” and that experimenting with them as proxies for college and career readiness will provide important information.

A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as States Promise Higher Standards In Exchange for NCLB Leniency

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