The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only 35% of American 8th graders are proficient in mathematics, Paul E. Peterson and Peter Kaplan write in the latest edition of EducationNext. This puts the US in 32nd place in math compared to other industrialized nations.
US students also lag their international peers in reading – although not as badly. The results of the latest set of standardized exams puts America in 11th place worldwide.
What is to blame for such a poor showing? Some argue that the fault lies with low expectations set by the states. These standards are typically below the standards used by the NAEP, which are similar to the standards used to assess students around the world.
Peterson and Kaplan speculate that states set a lower bar for a number of reasons. One could be avoiding loss of face if a majority of students test below proficiency levels. Another is that the lowered standards could make complying with requirements set by No Child Left Behind easier.
Unhappy with the low level and wide variation in state standards, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with the financial backing of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the political support of the U.S. Department of Education (ED), formed a consortium in 2009 that invited each state to join in an effort to set Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Those states that take that step and institute other education reforms improve their chances of receiving an ED waiver of onerous NCLB regulations. That waiver, which has been granted to 37 states and the District of Columbia, provides a strong incentive to participate in CCSS. (Virginia is the only state to receive a waiver without adopting the standards.)
Common Core is closer to the international standards used to compare students from around the world. Students who achieve high Common Core proficiency rates will score well against their international peers.
Furthermore, Common Core also encourages teaching in ways that go beyond simple memorization. For instance, students are expected to understand and derive mathematical formulas that they use instead of just memorizing how to apply them.
CCSS is not without its critics. Alabama and Indiana are threatening to withdraw from participation in CCSS on the grounds that the federal government is imposing a national curriculum on local school districts. In Massachusetts and California, opposition groups claim that existing state standards exceed those proposed by CCSS. Others worry because teachers unions are calling for a moratorium on stakes attached to student testing until the new CCSS standards have been fully implemented, which may take several years.
Still, it's hard to argue that adopting tougher standards could lead to amazing improvements in student outcomes. One frequently cited example is Tennessee. Even before developing more rigorous standards became a national conversation, in 2007 Tennessee recognized that the bar it sets for its students was entirely too low.
With the support of his state department of education and board of education, then governor Phil Bredesen led a concerted, highly publicized effort to revamp the state standards. As a result, state tests were made much more challenging and the percentage of students identified as proficient dropped from 90 percent or more to around 50 percent, a candid admission of the challenges the Tennessee schools faced. The remarkable transition in Tennessee shows that states are capable of dramatic reform when the political leadership is committed to focusing public attention on the problem.
After receiving all Fs on national assessment tests for years, the state saw its efforts pay off in a dramatic way in 2011. That year its schools and its whole education system earned As across the board.