Special Report

May/June 2012 Transcontinental Education

Soon, nearly every state in the union will have the same demanding standards for what students should know. If history is any guide, a burst of innovation won’t be far behind.

By Robert Rothman

The results varied across states as well. In Massachusetts, for example, the proportion of fourth graders who performed above the “proficient” level on the NAEP mathematics test doubled between 1996 and 2005; reading performance also rose substantially during that period. But in California, reading performance barely budged, while mathematics performance improved.

There are several reasons for this mixed record. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, the former director of the U.S. Institute of Education Sciences, now at the Brookings Institution, has argued that the standards made little difference in education performance. Looking at the quality of state standards and states’ NAEP mathematics scores, Whitehurst found no correlation between the two. Tom Loveless, Whitehurst’s colleague at Brookings, used this data to suggest that common core standards are unlikely to make a difference either.

But the lack of correlation between the quality of standards and student performance might be expected, because standards, by themselves, do not produce higher levels of learning. For one thing, the standards varied in quality from state to state, and in some cases the state standards were either long lists of topics, too many topics to cover in a single year, or expectations that were too vague to provide much guidance to teachers. Teachers tended to continue what they had been doing rather than try to use standards to design new courses of study. In part, the poor quality of many of the standards resulted from the process of setting them: states tried to get buy-in from as many people as possible, so the standards either ended up watered down to please everyone or reflected logrolling (I’ll take your standard if you take mine).

At the same time, in many states, the other pieces of the puzzle—new textbooks, professional support for teachers—did not materialize, so teachers lacked the support they needed to change their practices. Thus, even in states with standards that were considered strong, such as California, a lack of resources limited their impact.

Tests also played a major role in affecting the influence of the standards . In theory, the tests should have measured what the standards expected, but in practice that didn’t happen. The assessments tended to measure what was easiest to measure—relatively low-level knowledge and skills, rather than the more complex abilities the standards called for. And as testing grew in importance, with significant consequences attached to the results, teachers quite naturally placed more attention on what was on the tests than on what was in the standards.

National standards could have alleviated much of the variability in state standards, but the idea became hotly contested politically in the 1990s. Under George W. Bush, the federal government issued grants to national organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences, to develop standards in key subject areas; states were expected to refer to these national standards in developing their own. But some of the national documents, particularly one pertaining to U.S. history standards, sparked fierce battles. The National Endowment for the Humanities had issued a grant to a national organization based at the University of California, Los Angeles, to develop the standards. But the day before they were scheduled to be released, Lynne V. Cheney, the wife of Dick Cheney and the former NEH chair who had issued the grant, took to the Wall Street Journal to denounce the standards as a monument to political correctness. The U.S. Senate followed suit, voting 99 to 1 for a nonbinding resolution denouncing the new history standards.

The Republican-led Congress also killed an agency created by the Clinton administration that would have assessed state standards against the national benchmarks. A later proposal by Clinton to establish a voluntary national test in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade mathematics also died amid opposition from Republicans, who feared the nationalization of what had traditionally been a state and local function. The national standards movement appeared dead.

Nevertheless, the need for national standards became more and more apparent. First, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) made the many variations in state standards all the more conspicuous. That law, enacted in 2002, required all students to reach “proficiency” in reading and math by 2014, but left it up to states to create their own standards and tests and determine what constituted proficiency. The law also required all states to administer the NAEP, the federal testing program. Results soon appeared showing that in some states nearly all students reached proficiency on state tests, while only a handful reached that level on the NAEP; in other states, the proficiency levels on the two tests were similar. These findings showed clearly that standards varied tremendously among the states, and suggested that some states were setting standards too low.

NCLB also sparked criticism of the tests that states were using to measure student performance. Teachers and others complained that too much time was spent preparing students to fill in bubbles on low-level tests. There was more interest in creating higher standards and better measures that would promote higher-level classroom activities and higher levels of learning.

The rise of globalization also made it clear that higher standards were needed, and that boundaries between states were becoming less important. What did it matter if Alabama and Massachusetts each set its own standards when students from both states were competing against students from China and India? The results from international assessments that began to be issued in the early 2000s, moreover, showed that U.S. students performed well below their peers from other countries, lending greater credence to the idea of high national standards. For example, in 2003, U.S. fifteen-year-olds ranked twenty-first of twenty-eight industrialized nations in mathematics on the Programme for International Student Assessment, a test administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The PISA results are particularly significant because that test measures students’ abilities to use their knowledge to solve real-world problems, the kind of higher-order abilities students are expected to have in order to succeed in a global economy.

Yet while the need for national standards grew more evident, those with scars from the political battles of the 1990s realized that the effort had to take a different tack. Perhaps the most important leader calling for a new approach was James B. Hunt Jr., the former governor of North Carolina and the head of an education policy organization in Durham. Hunt called a meeting of education leaders in the summer of 2006 in Raleigh to consider the idea of building common standards from the ground up: states would come together to build them, rather than allowing national organizations to impose them from the top. This was followed by a similar meeting in Washington later that year, convened by Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia and the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based policy and advocacy organization. The move toward common standards was under way.

Robert Rothman is an education writer and a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education. He is the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education.


  • Big River Bandido on May 11, 2012 12:40 PM:

    If the only way you measure students against "standards" is high-stakes testing, you take all the "education" out of "reform". Ten years of NCLB has diluted the primary and secondary education experience into nothing but a drill of rote concepts that are likely to appear on standardized tests.

    What good is requiring students to be able to recite the Gettysburg Address if schools aren't allowed the time to teach them what it means?

  • Anonymous on May 11, 2012 1:10 PM:

    that's how students are taught by countries with better educations.
    i hope this will work out great!
    a good non-partisan comprehensive article on educational reform.

  • LoachDriver on May 30, 2012 11:12 PM:

    It's easy to see the benefits of national standards but country mouse I am willing to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to maintain local standards in education.

    Regimented efficiency was a favorite dogma of the Soviet Union & we saw how that worked out, not very well.

  • rick on June 04, 2012 8:56 PM:

    Any school reform generated in ivory towers will become an abject failure. Any experienced teacher can read the handwriting on the wall regarding the common core. I would recommend that the experts generating this newest round of tests spend a marking period in front of a class of 7th graders before that press the print button.