Recommendations for National K-12 Education Standards Target College Readiness

The United States is one of only a few developed countries that have not adopted national standards for its public schools. That could soon change. On Wednesday, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released its final recommendations for what students in grades K-12 should master each year in English language arts and mathematics.

The proposal, unveiled at special ceremony held at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwannee, Georgia, includes some of the more than 10,000 recommendations that the Common Core State Standards Initiative received after it released a draft in March. Standards are detailed in two documents, Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.

The goal is to ensure that every student graduates from high school prepared to attend a post-secondary institution or enter the workforce. Individual states will be able to determine how well their students are performing against those in other states and it also gives employers and higher education institutions benchmarks to compare education across states in a way that they can’t do now except for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The common standards would force some states to dramatically improve the quality of education they provide. Students in Mississippi, for example, perform very well in the state’s assessment test, but very low on the NAEP. They wouldn’t be considered at all proficient in Massachusetts, which in education circles represents the gold standard. Under the common standards initiative, students in the two states would be expected to develop the same level of proficiency. It is not yet clear how many states will participate in the initiative, but Texas and Alaska did not participate in the standards-creation effort, and Virginia has already opted out.

National Education Association vice president Lily Eskelsen says that the initiative could have a huge impact on all children who will no longer have to memorize information simply to make the cut score on standardized tests but will instead have to develop critical learning and thinking skills that will prepare them for both college and life.

The “testing mania” that is a by-product of the No Child Left Behind law, she adds, has been particularly detrimental to low income and minority children and common standards will enable them to get the “complete education that they deserve.” Eskelsen also believes that the standards could have a profound impact on teacher training.

“Higher education will have an essential role to play in preparing teachers to help students reach these standards and in ensuring that assessments provide students, parents and teachers with an accurate indication of students’ progress toward college readiness,” said a group of national higher education organizations in a statement. “We stand ready to work closely with our colleagues in elementary/secondary education on this groundbreaking work.”

The unveiling of the national standards for K-12 education prompted the American College Testing Program, Inc., or ACT, to hold a media briefing Wednesday for Latino media reaching parents within the nation’s largest minority group. Latino student growth has ballooned in recent years with some estimates predicting that one in every four students in public schools will be of Hispanic descent by 2020.

Although the standards have not been translated to other languages, ACT’s Scott Gomer said the non-profit organization is working toward increasing standards accessibility. For teachers, he said, the standards could provide much-needed clarity and guidance for college-readiness.  

Gomer said Latino organizations such as the National Council of La Raza participated in reviewing the standards through a state-led collaboration of parents, teachers, and government officials. 

“Along the way, all of the standards have gone through several groups to validate them and make sure they are equitable and serve the diverse student body and are as comprehensive as they can be,” Gomer said.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic, however.

Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom, said that “There is no empirical evidence that national standards produce superior educational outcomes.” In addition, he believes that states will be coerced into participating in the initiative so they can compete for grants in the federal government’s “Race to the Top” program.”

Dr. Lois Harrison-Jones, who chairs the Howard University School of Education’s Department of Educational Administration and Policy, has mixed feelings.

“I want to support the notion that there should be some commonality, but at the same time there has to be some localized attention to education. If working with low income students who don’t receive any academic stimulation beyond school, your curriculum has to look different and you have to put in place some procedures or instructional methodologies that will differ,” she explains.

Cultural sensitivity will also be a critical component Harrison-Jones adds.

“If the curriculum has absolutely no diverse instructional materials, students read books and never see anybody who looks like them, women never hold positions of authority or people of color are in subservient-type positions, that will have a very negative impact and the curriculum will have aided and abetted that,” she said.

Reporter Arelis Hernandez contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified ACT’s Scott Montgomery in comments relating to the core standards and Latino families. Scott Gomer of the ACT was in fact the source of that information.