How to Avoid Dumbing High Schools Down in Re-authorizing ESEA

(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)

President Obama wants all states to adopt Common Core’s standards for mathematics and English language arts and reading . He also wants states to use tests based on these standards in the re-authorization of ESEA. The feds are also funding development of not only these tests but also curriculum and instructional resources tied to these standards.  Despite the questionable legal basis for all of this, it is hard to find legislators commenting on the implications of the language the feds want in a re-authorized ESEA, perhaps because they have been mesmerized by the glib phrase that states should use standards “that prepare all students for college and career”?  Who would oppose that?  Yet, there are good reasons why Congress should remove wording in the re-authorization of ESEA that implicitly requires states to adopt or use Common Core’s standards, or leaves states no choice but to adopt or use them.

At present, states must report student scores yearly to USDE to show Adequate Yearly Progress.  States now use scores from state assessments based on their own state standards and cut scores.  However, most states’ standards and tests are of poor quality, embed low academic expectations, and do not allow comparison of results.  As a result, about 44 states have already adopted CCS as their own state standards (some enticed by the prospect of RttT funds), even though many fear the loss of local control of curriculum and instruction, and are worried about the costs they will incur from administering the high-tech tests USDE wants.   Beggars can’t be choosers.  USED promises to make the tests free to all states (though not the costs of administering them).  Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, and a few other states have not officially adopted the CCS because they judge their own state standards in math or reading to be better or also fear losing  local control of curriculum and instruction.

The USDE makes a reasonable case for standardizing academic expectations across all states and using the same tests across states to enable us to compare results. We have a highly mobile school population.  Having national standards and assessments sounds like the way to address 50 sets of mostly low quality standards and tests. However, national standards and tests do not necessarily lead to high academic expectations and a high-achieving population. Most countries already have national standards, but most do not have high-achieving students.  Much depends on the quality of their national standards and tests (as well as the quality of their teachers).  If standards and the tests based on them are not first-rate, they guarantee mediocrity for the whole country at the same time that they remove local control of curriculum and instruction.

The blackest mark CCS gets is for the low level of the academic expectations built into their definition of, and standards for, college-readiness.  Besides the legal questions, Common Core’s “college- and career-readiness standards” are not rigorous enough to prepare American high school students for authentic college-level coursework.  Nor can they make this country competitive in mathematics and science.  Despite the claims of the many organizations that were funded by the Gates Foundation to develop, praise, promote, and evaluate them positively, CCS are neither internationally benchmarked nor research-based.

Readers can find this out in critiques by independent researchers or content experts, such as Diane Ravitch and William Mathis’s report for the National Education Policy Center on the lack of a research base for CCS, R. James Milgram’s explanation of why, as a member of the Validation Committee, he could not sign off on Common Core’s mathematics standards; and (3) Sandra Stotsky’s explanation of why, as a member of the Validation Committee, she could not sign off on Common Core’s secondary English language arts and reading standards (all public documents).

It is not surprising that CCS do not prepare high school students for authentic college-level, credit-bearing freshman courses. They were shaped chiefly by the same special interests that gave us the poor state standards they were designed to replace. CCS were deliberately not built on the best state standards, those once in California, Indiana, or Massachusetts. The people who had shaped those standards were purposely kept at arm’s length.

Language for a re-authorized ESEA has not yet been finalized, but it will be hard for legislators to oppose using scores from tests based on “standards that prepare all students for college and career” for accountability.  How many legislators know that the only set of standards that would satisfy this wording would be Common Core’s?  Who remembers that state high school standards have never been designed to prepare students for credit-bearing college freshman courses.  Their legitimate mission has always been to prepare students for a meaningful high school diploma.

By law, a state test must be based on state standards. ERGO, those states that have not adopted CCS would be compelled to do so in order to use tests based on standards with such a description.  On the other hand, those 44 states that have already adopted CCS would feel compelled to use the common tests for financial reasons because the standards on which these tests are based are now their state standards and there are no other tests readily available. If states must use tests based on standards claimed to “prepare all students for college and career” in order to get their Title I money, USDE would end up in control of public education in every state in this country.

ESEA should give states a choice of the high school standards and tests they use for accountability–but insist that those they use are internationally benchmarked and research-based. Language could be inserted wherever needed to allow all states to use standards  and tests based on them that satisfy state high school graduation requirements so long as they are internationally benchmarked and research-based.  Such a qualification could be used instead of language requiring use of standards “that prepare all students for college and career.”  In this way, states would maintain control of curriculum and instruction and decide what tests satisfy their high school diploma requirements.  They may prefer objective end-of-course tests in algebra I, geometry, algebra II, U.S. history, chemistry, physics, and biology instead of “performance-based” subjective tests.  Policies built  into ESEA wording should strengthen, not weaken, the high school curriculum and prevent federal control of the content of public education.

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5 Responses to How to Avoid Dumbing High Schools Down in Re-authorizing ESEA

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael L. Umphrey, Jay P. Greene. Jay P. Greene said: How to Avoid Dumbing High Schools Sown in Re-authorizing ESEA http://wp.me/peH0y-1Wh [...]

  2. Ze'ev Wurman says:

    I once also thought that student mobility is a strong argument for national standards. If one casually searches the web for mobility numbers, 14-20% annual mobility is the number often quoted.

    Yet this is simply wrong. First, the 20% was in 1948(!), when post WW2 mobility was unusually large. Today this number is closer to half of that. Worse, much of this mobility is *in-state* mobility and the out-of-state mobility is less than 3%. Finally,mobility among K-12 students is even lower, perhaps due to the difficulty (and reluctance) to move with children.

    Bottom line, the “mobility” argument is a bogus argument for national standards.

  3. Robin York says:

    Kudos for a great piece. OK to send a printed copy to my Congressional Representative? Reauthorization of ESEA is imminent I’m afraid.

  4. [...] the Common Core standards are inadequate—their “college-ready” standards are actually set below what you need to apply to most colleges. Another is that the educational special interest groups who fatten themselves by destroying [...]

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