Wanted: Internationally Benchmarked Standards in English, Mathematics, and Science (by Sandra Stotsky)

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The many flaws in Common Core’s standards are finally beginning to be discussed in state after state, especially the damaging expectation that all American high school students should be prepared for college, whether or not they are willing or able to do the reading that college coursework requires.  The hidden problem with such an expectation is that it can be achieved on tests of college-readiness only when empty skills (e.g., find the main idea) are applied to non-demanding texts and when performance tasks are subjectively evaluated (e.g., how well does Jamie show “critical thinking” or collaborate with peers when solving a problem). That is why Common Core’s standards were intentionally not internationally benchmarked.  Other countries expect “college-ready” students to know a lot of mathematics and science content, and to read well beyond the grade 6 level.  According to the latest (2012) Renaissance Learning survey and analysis, American students are now asked to read (or choose to read) texts with the average grade level of 6.2, an average that has gone steadily down in the past century. [1]

[quote align=”left” color=”#999999″]Making this country competitive was a major goal for the development of national standards.  But this goal was quietly abandoned by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. [/quote]

Making this country competitive was a major goal for the development of national standards.  But this goal was quietly abandoned by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Yes, some Common Core K-5 standards may be somewhat better than some state standards they replaced.  But the quality of Common Core’s secondary standards is far from the quality of the best sets of state standards we had, such as in California, Indiana, and Massachusetts.  The standards in these states had been internationally benchmarked because no other country expects all its students to complete an academic high school or prepare for college.

How do I know the goal of international benchmarking was abandoned by CCSSI?  As a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee from September 2009 to August 2010, among the criteria I was asked to sign off on in May 2010 was whether Common Core’s standards were “comparable to the expectations of other leading nations.”  Despite making regular requests since September 2009 for evidence of international benchmarking, I received no material on the academic expectations of other leading nations in mathematics or language and literature.  I was one of the five members of the 23-member committee who declined to sign off after examining the final version of the standards.

I had also done my own research on the matter.  Two English-speaking regions (British Columbia and Ireland) indicate far more demanding requirements for the literary knowledge students need in order to pass a high school exit test or matriculation exam than appear in Common Core’s high school standards.

The able staff at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education could also see that the emperor had no clothes on.  In its critique of the March 2010 public comment draft of Common Core’s mathematics standards, it urged in boldface: “Reconceptualize the document based on 4 years of high school mathematics, notCollege and Career Readiness.” [2]

The staff clearly hinted at the lack of rigor in the draft high school English standards: “Currently, the Mathematics document presents high school standards that prepare students to be college-and career-ready and indicates additional standards that are beyond the college-and career-readiness level… There is no equivalent to this in ELA…”  Common Core’s final version did not incorporate the recommendations of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Apparently, national legislators and self-appointed central planners, among others, are so mesmerized by the idea of having uniform standards that they do not believe this country needs internationally benchmarked English, mathematics, and science standards. A reasonable case can be made for standardizing academic expectations across all states and using the same tests to enable us to compare results.  But the lack of international benchmarking cannot be justified.  Nor can the attempt by CCSSI and its supporters to pretend that Common Core’s standards were internationally benchmarked.

Having national standards that are lower than those of our international competitors will lead to:

*an increase in the number of students unprepared for authentic college-level coursework in our public colleges, with no remedial coursework allowed for them (they will be, after all, “college-ready”).

*an increase in the number of well-prepared foreign students in our selective colleges, public or private

*a reduction in the number of mathematically and scientifically able native-born students potentially eligible for positions in agencies related to national security and defense

*pressure on all public colleges to lower their admission requirements

*a general expectation that everyone should go to college and at public expense

*a drastic decline in the worth of a college degree

Who will remember that 20th century high schools were not designed to prepare all students for credit-bearing college freshman courses?  Their legitimate mission has always been to prepare students for a meaningful high school diploma, whether they went to work, joined the military, or enrolled in a college.  That is where true education reforms need to be centered. [3] In a re-authorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Congress could require states to provide all middle school students with a variety of high school curriculum options, academic, technical, and specialized, and to maximize the number of students ready for authentic college-level coursework.

 1. What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools.  (Wisconsin Rapids, WI: Renaissance Learning, 2013), p. 37.

2. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  April 8, 2010.  Overall Impressions of the March 10, 2010 Public Comment Draft of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies and Science and the Public Comment Draft of the Common Core Standards for Mathematic.

3. An open letter to the governors of the fifty states: Recommendations for reforming the American high school.  Co-authors R. James Milgram and Elizabeth Carson.  (2006). Texas Lyceum’s 20th Public Conference Journal, 23-26. http://www.texaslyceum.org/media/staticContent/journals/Journal_-_2005_Pubcon.pdf