Stars by Which To Navigate?View Best in Class
It might actually happen. Planets and stars are beginning to align. Dare we say it? Some sort of national education standards could become a reality.
If so, it will have been a long time in the makingâ€”at least half a century. In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called for â€œnational goalsâ€ in education, including â€œstandards.â€ A decade later, President Richard M. Nixon called â€œthe fear of â€˜national standardsâ€™â€ one of the â€œbugaboos of education.â€ In 1983, President Ronald W. Reagan accepted from his first education secretary A Nation at Risk, which sounded an alarm about the parlous condition of U.S. academic standards and arguably catalyzed twenty-five years of standards-based reform. In 1988, with the collaboration of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, President Reagan presided over the reinvention of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), complete with state-by-state comparisons of student achievement and what became known as â€œachievement levelsâ€ by which NAEP data are now reported, a close relative of national standards.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush assembled the governors in Charlottesville where they agreed to the first national education â€œgoalsâ€ in U.S. history. He also paid for development of â€œvoluntary national standardsâ€ in core subjects, only to see the Senate vehemently denounce the draft U.S. history standardsâ€”and most of the others crash and burn, too. President Bill Clinton later pushed for voluntary national testing, only to see a disgruntled House pull the plug on their funding. Then, in 2001, President George W. Bush and Congress teamed up to enact No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which embraced standards-based reform and testingâ€”just not national standards and national tests. It turned out, however, that the hodge-podge of state standards and tests, some of them world-class rigorous, some downright embarrassing, made a mockery of NCLBâ€™s 2014 drop-dead deadline by which all American youngsters would be â€œproficientâ€ in reading and math.
September 2009 found President Obamaâ€™s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, also faulting NCLB for discouraging â€œhigh learning standardsâ€ and even â€œinadvertently encourag[ing] states to lower them.â€
The Advent of Common Standards
Though not everyone yet agrees, one solution now gathering force is development of a set of â€œcommonâ€ core academic standards for the United States, much like most high-performing countries already have. Thatâ€™s a heavy lift, to be sure, but the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), in partnership with Achieve, ACT, and the College Board, have embarked on just such an undertaking.
Known as the â€œCommon Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI),â€ the goal of this state-led initiative is to develop common standards in reading/writing/listening/speaking and mathematics for grades K-12. (Science may eventually follow.) Governors and commissioners of education from nearly every state have already pledged some level of commitment to this initiative though no oneâ€™s yet quite sure what that means.
In mid-September, CCSSI released a â€œpublic draftâ€ of end-of-high-school standards in those two subjects, and asked for comments within thirty days. Further revisions will doubtless follow. Meanwhile, drafting teams are beginning to â€œbackward mapâ€ the standards down through earlier grades.
Nobody knows how all of this will turn out, but we think itâ€™s worth pitching in to try to help make it turn out wellâ€”while reserving final judgment until we see the final product. Meanwhile, dozens of questions deserve to be asked and eventually need to be answered. Hereâ€™s a smattering:
Conceptually…Will the Common Standards in reading/writing/listening/speaking and math be as good as America needs in the 21st Century? Who says so and how do we know? How will we ensure their rigor and relevance over the long term? What about the assessments needed to give them traction? Where will those come from? Who will set their passing scores?
Logistically…What challenges (and landmines) lie ahead? What are the benefits and risks to states that adopt these standards? How will they know if these are better (or worse) than those theyâ€™re using today? What is the intersection between â€œcommon coreâ€ standards and the next iteration of NCLB? Will such standards make it more or less likely that students will be deemed â€œproficientâ€ and their schools will make adequate progress? What are the costs? What is the timeline for statesâ€™ adoption? How many will adopt? Will anyone monitor their implementation for fidelity and if so, who?
Organizationally…What entity will â€œownâ€ these standards and the tests that must follow? Who will be responsible for revising them? Correcting errors? Ensuring that assessment results are reported in timely fashion? Will comparative state data be seen as a blessing or a curse? How, if at all, will this venture relate to the federal government? Who will pay for it? What ancillary materials and tools for teachers should state governments or others provide? Will standards and tests in other subjects follow?
Weâ€™re optimistic that these questions can be satisfactorily answered, tomorrow if not today. For years, weâ€™ve favored movement toward national standards and tests. That preference has strengthened as weâ€™ve learned more about the downside of fifty separate state standards and tests. But we also know that the stakes are exceptionally high. And we really want to see these standards done right. That means we must do our part, too.
And that, in turn, means helping to inform two parts of this debate. First, states need to know if these Common Core standards are any goodâ€”and better than their own. Second, as those developing the common standards amplify and refine their workâ€”and as state officials work on their own standards, which theyâ€™ve been revising for yearsâ€”they often look to existing national and international tests and frameworks for guidance and models. â€œInternational benchmarkingâ€ is the new buzz word. So is â€œworld class.â€ But which international and national frameworks and tests are worth benchmarking to?
Our reviewers And a Snapshot of What they found
To help answer these questions, we enlisted four top-notch experts, individuals who not only possess deep content expertise in their respective fields, but who have also rolled up their sleeves to work with state officials and classroom teachers to ensure that state standards are crafted and implemented with integrity.
Sheila Byrd Carmichael served as lead reviewer for English language arts. She is an education consultant based in Washington, D.C., who has taught English in the District of Columbia Public Schools as well as Italy and Japan. She was the founding director of the American Diploma Project. Carol Jago served as external reviewer for English language arts. Ms. Jago is the Director of the Reading and Literature Project at UCLA and incoming President of the National Council of Teachers of English.
W. Stephen Wilson served as lead reviewer for mathematics. He is Professor of Mathematics at the Johns Hopkins University and has served as Senior Advisor for Mathematics at the U.S. Department of Education. Richard Askey served as external reviewer for mathematics. Dr. Askey is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1999, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. (For more on our reviewers, see â€œMeet the Experts,â€ page 5.)
WHATâ€™S THEIR VERDICT?
- PISA â€¢ PISA strikes out. Neither in reading (literacy) nor in math does its content deserve better than a grade of â€œD.â€ This is not a promising benchmark for American K-12 education in these subjects.
- NAEP â€¢ NAEP fares better, with a â€œCâ€ for math and â€œBâ€ grades in reading and writing. But it ought to be better than it is.
- TIMSS â€¢ TIMSS does really well, earning an â€œAâ€ in math. (Math and science are all that TIMSS touches.)
- Common Core: Math â€¢ The draft Common Core end-of-high-school standards in math, mid-September version, are better than PISA and NAEP, not as good as TIMSS. Our reviewers give this draft a â€œBâ€ and offer suggestions for improving the final version.
- Common Core: ELA â€¢ The draft Common Core end-of-high-school standards in reading-writing-speaking-listening also earn a â€œBâ€ from our reviewersâ€”as well as much advice for strengthening and augmenting the final version.
The Ela Dilemma
That last point needs amplification, for itâ€™s crucial to understand that drafters of the Common Core standards in reading, etc., faced a dilemma. If they tried to set standards for the entirety of English language arts, they would be inviting unwinnable battles over reading lists, authors, multiculturalism, and such. If, on the other hand, they confined themselves to the essential â€œskillsâ€ associated with reading/writing/speaking/listening, they would be open to complaints that â€œthis isnâ€™t really Englishâ€ and â€œreading cannot be taught sans content.â€
So they made a prudential judgment. The actual standards they set forth are limited to key skills but they carefully explain the types and levels of reading materials (including but not limited to literature) that they judge to be suited to those skills; they offer a few well-chosen illustrative passages; they underscore the interdependence of skills and content; and they state clearly and bluntly that these standards need to be accompanied by a rich, content-based curriculum. But they donâ€™t supply that content themselves.
Someone must. This is really, really important, particularly for reading. In addition to our reviewersâ€™ commentary on this point, consider these trenchant observations by University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham, regarding the draft reading standards:
At first glance the 18 standards sound quite sensible: students should be able to determine what a text says, make inferences from it, discern the most important ideas, and so forth….The problem is that teachers and administrators are likely to read those 18 standards and to try to teach to them. But reading comprehension is not a â€œskillâ€ that can be taught directly….The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledgeâ€”the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read….
What happens if the reader doesnâ€™t have the prior knowledge the writer assumed she had? The reader will be confused and comprehension breaks down….If you take kids who score poorly on a reading test and ask them to read on a topic they know something about (baseball, say, or dinosaurs) all of a sudden their comprehension is terrificâ€”better than kids who score well on reading tests but who donâ€™t know a lot about baseball or dinosaurs.
In other words, kids who score well on reading tests are not really kids with good â€œreading skills.â€ The kids who score well on reading tests are ones who know a lot about the worldâ€”they have a lot of prior knowledge about a wide range of thingsâ€”and so that whatever they are asked to read about on the test, they likely know something about it….
How do students get prior knowledge? It accumulates through years of exposure to newspapers, serious magazines, books, conversations with knowledgeable people. It should also come from a content-rich curriculum in school….
The new national standards actually say that….But the standards themselves donâ€™t recommend that we ensure that students â€œhave a strong content baseâ€ as a way to ensure that they are good readers! Instead, the standards document lists things that students ought to be able to do (summarize, find the main idea, etc.) that invite states, districts, and teachers to design curricula emphasizing practice in those skills.
The mistaken idea that reading is a skillâ€”learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies and you can read anythingâ€”may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country.
Much work awaits the drafters, at least in reading/writing/speaking/listening, both as they revise the end-of-high-school standards and as they backward-map these to earlier grades. And even more work awaits those who will deploy these standards as part ofâ€”please, just part ofâ€”their own expectations for schools and students.
We will, of course, have more to say on this topic when the revised versions come out. We naturally hope that the revision process will heed our reviewersâ€™ comments, criticisms, and advice.
the path ahead
The purpose of this report, then, is to assess the content, rigor, and clarity of the first public drafts of the CCSSI andâ€”applying identical criteriaâ€”also to appraise these elements in Americaâ€™s current de facto national math and reading/writing tests (NAEP) as well as two influential international testing regimes (PISA and TIMSS) that many look to for â€œbenchmarkingâ€ purposes. Our subject experts have compared these test frameworks and standards using the same metrics. (See â€œAssumptionsâ€ on page 8 for
a discussion of why testing frameworks may be considered standards.) Our goal is to help readers and users determine which of these documents ought to influence their thinking, their standards, their aspirations, and their tests. Is one of these national/ international frameworks worthier of emulation than others? Are components of several stronger in different domains?
But this is an interim report. What we review here are the first public drafts released by the Common Core project. Made available on September 21, the public has been invited to provide feedback on them through October 21 via the CCSSI website. And thatâ€™s what we and our expert reviewers are doing. The common standards are still a work in progress;1 hence, these reviews are not summative. Thatâ€™s true of NAEP, PISA, and TIMSS, too. Some of them are also in the process of being updated or revised.
So weâ€™ll be back in the spring of 2010 with a follow-up report. It will include new reviews of standards and tests from organizations frequently regarded as key players in determining college and career readinessâ€”the ACT and the College Board (both of which are partners in the Common Core initiative).
More specifically, the next report will round out our examination of math and English language arts standards. In math, we expect to add reviews of 1) the PISA 2009 Mathematics Frameworks (scheduled to be released in December 2009); 2) the TIMSS 2011 Mathematics Frameworks ( just released in September 2009); 3) the ACT Testing Specifications for Mathematics; 4) the College Boardâ€™s Standards for Mathematics and Statistics; and 5) revised versions of the Common Core standards for end-of-high-school mathematics as well as the â€œback-mappedâ€ standards for earlier grades (assuming these are ready in time to review).
In English language arts/reading/writing etc., we expect the next report to review 1) the College Boardâ€™s Standards for English Language Arts and Writing; 2) the ACT Testing Specifications for English/Writing and Reading standards; 3) the PIRLS 2011 Assessment Framework (released in late summer 2009); and 4) revised versions of the Common Core end-of-high school standards in reading, listening, and speaking and listening as well as the back-mapped standards for the earlier grades (again, assuming these are ready).
Nor is that the end. The ELA/reading and mathematics reviews will be supplemented with reviews from the equally important core subject areas of science and history. Like many, weâ€™re concerned that ELA and mathematics hog the academic spotlight and itâ€™s critical that U.S. history and science also remain bulwarks of the K-12 curriculum, with solid standards and more. So, weâ€™ll add four reviews in science and one in history. They include 1) the NAEP 2009 Science Frameworks; 2) the TIMSS 2009 Science Frameworks; 3) ACT Testing Specifications for Science; 4) the PISA 2009 Scientific Literacy Frameworks; and 5) the NAEP 2006 History Frameworks. (That this is both the only history review we have to offer and the latest version of NAEP speaks volumes about the neglect of this essential subject).
Amidst this flurry of national/international activity, Fordham will also commence another round of reviews of statesâ€™ current academic standards in English language arts, math, science, and history. (We last did this in 2005â€”and many states have since revised their standards.) Our purpose here is both to give state officials ongoing feedback regarding the standards that theyâ€™re actually using and to equip them and us with the capacity to make informed comparisons between state and national standards. We hope to release our next State of State Standards report in late 2010.
So, stay tuned. Like American education, we have miles still to travel on this twisty road.
This report was a collaborative product that benefitted from the expertise, skills, and hard work of many individuals. W. Stephen Wilson and Sheila Byrd Carmichael were the lead mathematics and English language arts reviewers (respectively) and authors of the reviews. In addition to their subject matter expertise, each is a consummate professional, willing to meet outrageous deadlines and to persist through multiple drafts. Carol Jago served as external reviewer for English language arts and Richard Askey for mathematics. Both were conscientious and thorough in their feedback. Thanks also to Andreas Schleicher, head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at OECD, for providing us with an advance copy of the PISA 2009 Reading Frameworks and for responding expeditiously to our other questions and requests. (We regret that he likely wonâ€™t welcome the reviewersâ€™ conclusions.)
This report was made possible in part by grants from The Brookhill Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was a joint effort with our sister organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which also contributed financially. We appreciate the confidence, patience, and intellectual guidance provided by all of these funders. Quentin Suffren served as our adept copy editor. Alton Creative created the nifty design. At Fordham, interns Jack Byers and Janie Scull were quick to lend a helping hand. Amy Fagan and Laura Pohl capably handled dissemination, and Stafford Palmieri skillfully managed report production (in addition to other writing and editing tasks). Special thanks go to senior editor Marci Kanstoroom, who helped to shape the project along the way, as well as provided feedback and plenty of editorial assistance.
organization of the report
The remainder of Part 1 first describes the assumptions that underpin our work, then the study methods. Part 2 describes how the standards were graded, including the content-specific criteria that our expert reviewers used to assess them and the grading metric employed to score them. Part 3 includes the standards reviews with math first (Common Core, NAEP, TIMSS, PISA) followed by English language arts (Common Core, NAEP, PISA). We close (part 4) with a takeaway. Finally, the appendix (part 5) includes an overview of the standards that have been reviewed.
Read moreABOUT THIS REPORT
Our review ofthe NAEP Framework
Our review ofState Standards