States Aim for Common Standards for Students

About 85 percent of West Virginia’s eighth grade students taking the state’s end-of-year test for reading skills scored at or above a proficient level in 2007. That’s one of the nation’s highest rates for reading proficiency, and would seem to indicate the state’s schools are doing a good job preparing students for college or a career.
But the state statistic is misleading, some education analysts say. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s only achievement test given to students in every state, less than 25 percent of West Virginia’s eighth graders scored proficient or above—a far cry from the state’s own test results.
West Virginia isn’t alone in the gap between state and national test results. Without exception, every state for which data was available—more than 40—had a  higher percentage of students  reaching proficiency than the national exam showed, according to former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who now heads the education think tank Alliance for Excellent Education. He said the average gap between proficiency on state tests and the national test is more than 35 percentage points.

“I’m not saying that (the national test) is perfect, but there are a lot of discrepancies taking place here,” Wise told legislators at an April policy summit on the Common Core State Standards Initiative conducted by The Council of State Governments.

One problem, according to Wise, is that each state has its own unique set of academic standards indicating what students should know in each grade. In many states, those standards are not rigorous enough to prepare students for postsecondary education or a career. Wise is pushing states to adopt common core state standards in English language arts and mathematics. The standards were developed by teams of educational experts and spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The effort is now being propelled by numerous education advocacy organizations.

The final draft of the common core state standards will be unveiled later this month following a public comment period. Kentucky was the first state to adopt the standards in February, months before they were released. Officials concluded the common core standards would help Kentucky achieve a mandate in Senate Bill 1, enacted in 2009, which aimed to raise the rigor of K-12 education and required revised standards.

Senate Bill 1 sailed through both chambers of the Kentucky General Assembly without a dissenting vote. But Michael Miller, director of curriculum for the Kentucky Department of Education, warned legislators at CSG’s southern regional policy summit that they are likely to face challenges in the adoption and implementation of common standards.

“It’s not easy from a political perspective. It’s not easy from a policy perspective and it’s not easy from an implementation perspective,” he said.

Legislators have some concerns about adopting and implementing common standards. Some lawmakers attending CSG’s Common Core State Standards Policy Initiative summits believe comparing all states, particularly with disparities in per-pupil funding, would not be fair. They also worry about whether states have the capacity to implement the standards in a reasonable timeframe and whether they can afford the cost of professional development and new assessments.

But many legislators agreed that having consistent national standards is generally a good idea that would result in all students receiving the same level of rigor and instructional quality.

Missouri Rep. Sara Lampe, who attended CSG’s Southern Regional Policy Summit, is convinced national standards are needed to prepare students for postsecondary education and to increase America’s global competitiveness. She also believes by using economies of scale, adopting common core standards will enable states to join forces to save money purchasing textbooks and assessments aligned with the new standards.

“Not only is it the right thing to do policy-wise, it also is a money-saver (for the state),” Lampe said. “But I don’t want that to be the reason we go to core standards. The real reason we need to go to national standards is that we need to be able to compete in a world market.”

In most states, the decision to adopt common core state standards will be made by state boards of education. Legislators have direct oversight of educational standards in only a handful of states. Once new standards are adopted, however, legislators’ roles will increase exponentially. They’ll have to make decisions regarding funding for new textbooks, resources and assessments that align with the new standards, and for professional development for teachers.

To educate legislators about the Common Core State Standards Initiative, CSG conducted four regional policy summits, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in April and May. CSG is also holding roundtable meetings in 14 states between April and August to give legislators, state education leaders and stakeholder organizations such as parents, teachers and local school administrators an opportunity to discuss the potential impact of common core state standards.

“There has been a great deal of misinformation about common core state standards,” said Pam Goins, CSG’s director of education policy. “Many policymakers and stakeholders believe the federal government is the driving force behind this standards movement and that is not the case. The common core state standards have been state-driven, and CSG is working to provide policymakers with accurate and objective information to help them decide whether adoption of these standards is in the best interest of their education systems.”

States are in the process of deciding whether to adopt the new common core state standards. Those that do are required to adopt the standards in full, although each state will have the option to add its own standards up to 15 percent of the total core content standards package.
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