Author: McDonald, Dale
Date published: April 1, 2011
More than 40 states have agreed to adopt a set of high-quality common K-12 learning standards that include rigorous content and application of knowledge using higher-order thinking skills. Implementation of the standards has triggered the development of comprehensive assessment systems to measure how and what students learn along with the production of curricula, textbooks, digital media, teaching materials, professional development for teachers and other resources aligned to the standards. What implications will this have for Catholic schools?
Concerns about the quality of students' learning first surfaced in the Sputnik era and were intensified with the publication of "A Nation at Risk" that exposed the "mediocre educational performance" of America's educational system. The recommendation that schools adopt "more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct" began the period of standards based reform that culminated in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002.
NCLB mandated a focus on standards and assessments that were to foster proficiency in mathematics and reading for all students by 2014. Although many states appeared close to attaining that goal, the large disparities between student performance results on state assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that produces the "Nation's Report Card" evidenced significantly lower state standards to reach proficiency than those set by NAEP. This prompted calls for more uniformity and consistency in what all students across the nation should know and be able to do at each grade level. Also, the poor performance of U.S. students when compared with other nations on two international assessments, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), has been attributed to the fact that all higher-scoring countries have national standards, with core curriculum, assessments and professional development activities for teachers based on those standards.
Although periodic calls for the adoption of national standards have been rejected in the past, there is a growing consensus around the idea that there is a core of knowledge that students must know and skills they need to possess that should guide decisions about curriculum and assessment. The assumption is that creating consistent and clearer standards that will allow teachers to focus on fewer select topics in depth rather than numerous topics superficially will raise student achievement in the areas needed to be successful in college and the workforce.
Initiated by the Business Community
The standards movement was initiated by the business community, supported by the Business Roundtable and the National Governors Association (NGA), who were concerned that in order to remain competitive in today's global, knowledge-based economy, employers need graduates proficient in 21st century skills that rely on information technology and critical thinking to innovate and solve problems. Likewise, the Obama administration's priorities have contributed to the movement with a strong focus on the adoption of rigorous college and career-ready standards with aligned assessments as a means of providing a high-quality education for all students.
Since there are political and philosophical agendas triggered by the concept of a national curriculum, the terms national and federal have been dropped and replaced with a process called the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). While receiving encouragement from the federal government, the standards are not a government project. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) led the process that developed collegeand career-readiness standards and content-specific English-language arts and mathematics standards for grades K-12 that are "research and evidencebased, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations and include rigorous content and skills." The expectation is that common standards will improve teaching and learning dramatically at all levels by providing educators with direction about what all children need to learn and master in order to succeed in college and the workplace. The standards are available at http://www.corestandards.org.
During the National Governors Association meeting this summer, Education Secretary Arne Duncan denied that national tests would weaken state control of education, insisting that the governors, not the federal government, would drive the process that creates the tests. However, while the federal government is not controlling the test development, the Department of Education is becoming tangentiale involved. The Race to the Top Fund, a $350 million grant under the economic stimulus program, weights state grant applications more favorably if they have adopted the Common Core.
Under the same program, the Department of Education has awarded two consortia $330 million to develop the assessments that align with the standards. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SMARTER) have each organized groups of states to work collaboratively to create an assessment system and supporting materials to provide formative and summative assessments to ensure that all students are prepared with 21st century skills needed to compete in a global economy.
Last summer, an additional $15.8 million was awarded to each of the groups to help with the implementation of the new standards and assessments. The consortia leaders have indicated that they will devote much of that additional funding to providing digital libraries of curriculum and instructional materials for teachers as well as the training of a core of professionals to assist teachers with effective use of the resources.
Private Schools Excluded from Discussions
CCSSl is a state-driven public school oriented program. The private-school community was not included in the development of the standards, no representative is involved with the assessments and there is no indication that private school teachers and students could be included if they so wished or would have access to resources produced. Should this be a concern?
Perhaps there needs to be a national discussion of the issues among the various faith-based and independent schools as to what the implications of the standards and assessments may be for them. While most private schools have their own local or diocesan standards, their ability to continue to provide high-quality education for their students may be compromised as curriculum resources and professional development become aligned with CCSSI programs by college teacher-preparation programs, producers of instructional materials or as requisites for participation in the federal programs that currently benefit their students and teachers.
Maintaining the independence of the private schools in their choices of curricular and program designs may become more difficult as these schools struggle to balance the demands of their mission and the expectations of their constituents and the wider education community. Whatever position a school takes regarding the standards, it should do so after a thorough examination of them and analysis of the implications of both sides of the argument on the viability of the quality of the education they must provide to enable their students to compete on an equal plane with their counterparts in college and the workforce.
Dale McDonald, PBVM
Sister Dale McDonald. PBVM. Ph.D.. is the NCEA director of public policy and educational research (mcdonald@ ncea.org).