Shaky new standards for college readiness


By: Sandra Stotsky – November, 2010

“Dr. Ormsby is taking the month off to assess the existential meaning of the election results. He will return in December.”

A mesmerizing phrase regularly rolls off the tongues of education experts these days. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used it in a recent speech to the National Conference of State Legislators, saying that Common Core’s new standards will try to make certain that high school graduates are truly “college- and career-ready.” Sounds impressive, but he never said what the phrase means.

Duncan’s silence on specifics is not surprising. In the final version of the standards released on June 2, Common Core itself (an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers) made no effort to explain what precisely college and career readiness mean in math or English language arts. Nor did it provide evidence to support the standards or to demonstrate that they were internationally benchmarked. It cagily noted that it “consulted,” was “informed by,” or made “careful use of” research studies, evidence, and international data.

As the National Council of Teachers of English noted in a review of a July 2009 draft version of these CCRS, “the document presently contains a claim that these standards are evidence-based, but we note that none of the evidence has been drawn from peer-reviewed research journals or similar sources. Rather, the evidence offered at present consists of surveys conducted by the testing companies that stand most immediately to gain from the testing of these standards. This seems to represent a conflict of interest in the development of the standards.” Nevertheless, over 35 state boards of education–all presumably guardians of the public interest–have voted to adopt all its standards word for word, some before they ever saw the final version.

This is not the first time the public has been enticed into purchasing a pig in a poke (think School-to-Work or small high schools). And it won’t be the last; friends of “21st century skills” hawkers are now working full-speed to get them to the head of the line at the public trough. But given the staggering educational implications and costs of requiring all high schools to ensure that every student they graduate is college-ready (a U.S. Department of Education proposal for the next authorization of No Child Left Behind), one might have expected a few state board members to ask for answers about the nature of this pig. Few if any countries expect all 18-year-olds to meet the same set of academic standards–high or low–as if there were no differences in young adolescents’ interests, skills, and abilities or in the requirements of varied occupational training programs or types of post-secondary institutions.

So, what do these “college and career readiness standards” (CCRS) appear to designate? Those in English language arts (ELA) are clearly identifiable. While a few grade-level standards designate specific content, the CCRS consist wholly of content-empty and culture-free generic skills (e.g., “Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.”).

Why are the CCRS so bereft of substantive content in ELA? In large part because they reflect a faulty diagnosis of why many American students are unprepared to read authentic college-level texts. The misdiagnosis comes from American College Testing’s interpretation of its 2006 survey, which Common Core used to justify its CCRS in ELA. ACT surveyed thousands of post-secondary instructors across all subjects to find out what they saw as the chief problems in their freshman students. Unsurprisingly, the chief complaint was that high school graduates cannot understand the college texts they are assigned to read. Without an explanation for its reasoning, ACT leaped to two conclusions: (1) college students are not expected to read enough complex texts in high school; and (2) they are not given enough instruction in strategies for reading complex texts in high school.

With much more justification, ACT might have conjectured that an incoherent literature and reading curriculum, inappropriate teaching methods, poor study habits, and/or perhaps an unwillingness to put in much time reading or studying on a regular basis were contributing to high school graduates’ inability to read college texts. But, ACT did not consider these reasonable hypotheses. Nor did it ask what literary or non-literary knowledge base post-secondary instructors also found lacking. Common Core simply ran with ACT’s unwarranted conclusions and decided that English teachers at all grade levels should spend more time teaching students how to read informational texts, regardless of subject matter, than literary texts.

It’s not easy to discern what the CCRS are in mathematics in the June document. Mathematics standards for grades 9-12 are grouped in six conceptual categories, not by course or grade level. Those that are unmarked “specify the mathematics that all students should study in order to be college and career ready.” Those marked by (+) will enable students to take “advanced courses such as calculus…” Since calculus is typically the lowest-level credit-bearing mathematics course at selective colleges, students addressing only the unmarked high school mathematics standards will not be ready for those colleges. Apparently, not only is it unnecessary to take pre-calculus, much of Algebra II isn’t necessary, either, according to the Foundation that paid for Common Core’s standards.

As Vicki Phillips and Carina Wong, director of education and deputy director of College-Ready Work, respectively, for the Gates Foundation, wrote in the February 2010 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, “In the past, higher standards just meant more math. A decade ago, completing Algebra I became the standard; now, the standard is completing Algebra II. But evidence about college expectations for learning tells a different story: Students need more agility at data analysis and statistics than advanced algebra.”

The article expressed relief that teachers and students finally had a “solid set of standards in mathematics and literacy.” Although publication of the article was premature, anticipating the final standards by over four months, the Gates Foundation seemed to know it would get what it paid for when the article was written, undoubtedly sometime in 2009. It had, after all, funded the development of Common Core’s standards, their promotion, their review and comparison with the best sets of state standards, and their validity, as well as influenced the membership of the standards development, writing, feedback, and validation committees.

Too bad Phillips and Wong seem not to have read one of the strongest studies of what is necessary for college success. As Clifford Adelman commented: “There is a quantitative theme to the curriculum story that illustrates how students cross the bridge onto and through the postsecondary landscape successfully. The highest level of mathematics reached in high school continues to be a key marker in pre-collegiate momentum, with the tipping point of momentum toward a bachelor’s degree now firmly above Algebra 2.”

Common tests based on these CCRS (and the grade level standards they spawned) are just beginning to be developed, so it is too early to know what they actually assess, where passing scores will be set and by whom, and what role the Gates Foundation will play to safeguard its investments. Its College-Ready Work Team defines ready as “access to two-year transfer programs or four-year colleges with the knowledge and skills to succeed in freshman-year core courses–in other words, no remedial work.”

ACT (one of the three major organizations that developed Common Core’s standards) is reinforcing Gates’s goal in its report on its 2009 survey. It urges schools to “focus high school instruction on the essential skills needed for college and career readiness” and asks high school mathematics teachers to “avoid focusing on advanced content to the exclusion of the fundamentals that will provide their graduates with the rigorous understanding of mathematics knowledge needed for success in credit-bearing, entry-level college mathematics courses.”

It is not too early to ask what will happen when high school sophomores or juniors pass these high stakes tests and are declared to be “college-ready.” Will two or four year public colleges be required to place them in credit-bearing freshman courses if these students want to avoid meeting high school graduation requirements? Probably. It is also likely that college instructors will find themselves compelled, for the sake of survival, to adopt texts at the middle and high school level of difficulty in order to ensure that these “college-ready” students can read what is assigned, do the mathematics in them, and pass their college freshman courses.

Sandra Stotsky is a professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and holds the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality.