Stars by which to navigate?

It might actually happen. Planets and stars are beginning to align. Some sort of national education standards may actually become a reality.

It’s a heavy lift, to be sure, but the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, in partnership with Achieve, ACT, and the College Board, have embarked on just such an undertaking.

Known as the “Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI),” the goal of this state-led initiative is to develop academic standards in reading/writing/listening/speaking and mathematics for grades K-12. (Science may eventually follow). On September 21st, they released their first public draft of “college and career-ready” standards for the end of high school. 

How good are these? How do they compare with other widely respected standards, frameworks and benchmarks at the national and international levels? We at Fordham resolved to find out. The result is our new report, Stars By Which to Navigate? Scanning National and International Education Standards in 2009.

Its judgments are those of four top-notch experts. W. Stephen Wilson and Sheila Byrd Carmichael led the mathematics and English language arts reviews, advised by Richard Askey (math) and Carol Jago (ELA).

Briefly, here’s what they found:

• PISA strikes out. Neither in reading (literacy) nor in math does its content deserve better than a grade of “D.” This is no promising benchmark for American K-12 education.

• NAEP fares better, with a “C” for its math framework and “B” grades in reading and writing. But it ought to be better than it is.

• TIMSS does really well in math, earning an “A.” (Math and science are all that TIMSS touches.)

• The draft Common Core end-of-high-school standards in math are better than PISA and NAEP, not as good as TIMSS. Our reviewers give this draft a “B” and offer suggestions for improving the final version.

• The draft Common Core standards in reading-writing-speaking-listening also earn a “B” from our reviewers--as well as much advice for strengthening and augmenting them.

That last point needs amplification, for the Common Core drafters faced a bona fide dilemma. If they tried to set standards for the whole of English language arts, they would invite unwinnable battles over reading lists, authors, multiculturalism, and such. If, on the other hand, they confined themselves to the essential “skills” associated with reading, writing, speaking and listening, they could count on complaints that “this isn’t really English” and “reading cannot be taught sans content.”

So they made a prudential judgment. The actual standards they set forth are indeed 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 inter-dependence of skills and content; and they state clearly that these standards need to be accompanied by a rich, content-based curriculum. But they don’t supply that content themselves. Someone else will need to, else states adopting these standards could find themselves with highly skilled but sorely ignorant young people.

Others are reviewing the draft Common Core standards and comments are pouring in. (You can find the standards--and submit your own comments--at http://www.corestandards.org until October 21.) They’re also being reviewed by a high-status twenty-five-member “validation panel” named by the partner organizations and asked to “Validate the sufficiency of the evidence supporting each college- and career-readiness standard” and to recommend deletion of any standard that doesn’t have sufficient evidence--and to suggest others.

Watch for trouble from this direction. Few members of the validation panel are true content experts and more than a few have axes to grind or turf to defend or ideologies to push. (Consider, for example, that two OECD hierarchs--including the head of low-ranked PISA--have been put on this group. No, not a soul from TIMSS.)

The biggest problem with the validation panel--if indeed it is accorded real clout by the chiefs and governors--is that its very existence rests on an unwarranted conceit that undergirds the CCSSI project itself, namely that the common-core standards must be “evidence based.”

Most of them are not and cannot be, at least not today, given the state of research into what skills and knowledge are truly necessary to succeed in college and the workplace. Most such research is soft and impressionistic, based more on surveys and opinions--or the simple fact that some other country that does well on international assessments expects its young people to have such-and-such a skill or competency. It’s well worth knowing those things, but this isn’t “evidence” of the sort that passes muster with hard-eyed social scientists looking for “validity.” That type of evidence (a.k.a. “true predictive studies”) must take place over the long‐term with common-core standards-aligned assessments in place and student performance tracked over time.

And that’s OK with us. If we’ve learned anything from twenty-plus years of experience with NAEP and NAGB and state academic standards and their evaluation, it’s that academic standards depend on expert judgment, not faux social science (nor can their development wait for longitudinal data to buttress them). Expert judgment is what the common core drafters brought to bear and what our reviewers of those drafts brought to bear. Turns out that the drafts, within their limits, are pretty good, better in fact than many of us expected. They could and should be better--and there’s tons of work ahead, including “backward-mapping” them from the end of high school through grades K-8; building aligned assessments that will give them traction; and developing the curricular materials (especially in reading/writing etc.) that will bring them to life in the classroom. Let’s hope that important work isn’t wrecked by an inherently fruitless quest for “validation,” carried out by people with very different agendas.

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