More on the Core

By Monnica Chan, Stafford Peat, Ashley Perzyna and Yinan Zhang

From a higher education perspective, new “Common Core” standards could improve student college-readiness levels, reduce institutional remediation rates and close education gaps in and between states.

By 2014-15, many K-12 education systems should be able to adopt new state assessments after working to implement new state standards for student learning in English Language Arts and Mathematics. Many state higher education systems are also preparing for this new era of public education that has been building since 2009 by looking at “gateway” or credit-bearing entry-level course curricula and placement policies for students who may need remediation.

In 2009, 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia signed a memorandum of agreement with the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers to commit to a state-led process for developing K-12 education standards aligned with higher education and workforce expectations, also known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The agreement led to the development of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics. Since then, 45 of the original 48 states have adopted the standards and are in the process of implementing them across K-12 education through teacher professional development and new state assessments.

As a national initiative to create common educational standards for students across multiple states, the CCSS represent a new chapter in American education. In keeping with the tradition of state and local control over education policy, this initiative was driven by state governors and state education commissioners across the country. Participating states committed to improving college- and career-readiness rates at a time when international comparisons showed the U.S. lagging behind in educational performance, college attendance and degree attainment. For example:

  • On the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. 15-year-olds in 2009 fared about average with their counterparts in other industrialized countries and below average in math. The U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math—and performed far behind many countries including South Korea, Finland and Canada.
  • The U.S. also now ranks ninth in the world in the proportion of young adults enrolled in college and has fallen from first to 16th in the world in its share of certificates and degrees awarded to adults ages 25-34.

CCSS supporters often see the standards as one strategy for raising U.S. educational performance. According to the conservative Fordham Institute, the CCSS in both English Language Arts and Mathematics expect more of students than a majority of the state K-12 standards in place before the CCSS was developed and adopted. In addition, common standards across states provide a framework for preparing students beyond high school. From a higher education perspective, these new standards could improve student college-readiness levels, reduce institutional remediation rates down the road and close education gaps in and between states.

While promising and admirable, the CCSS have come under fire in many states as the implementation process wears on. During this past legislative session, for example, states have passed measures to postpone, require additional public debate or eliminate state funding to implement the standards. Even in states where such efforts were unsuccessful, the CCSS are a volatile topic with parents, teachers, higher education faculty and states’ rights groups rallying fears of federal intrusion.

Yet, the CCSS are neither a federally mandated curriculum nor a prescription for operating a classroom. The CCSS are rather grade-level expectations of what students are expected to learn. It is up to states and school districts to implement the standards and develop accompanying curricula that align to the standards.

The PBS program Frontline has run comprehensive coverage on the evolution of U.S. education standards.

If more states postpone or overturn the implementation of these new standards, the U.S. risks stalling in the current educational status quo or falling further behind international benchmarks. The implementation of these new educational standards for students is challenging enough as it is (see NEBHE Bites Into the Core).

It’s hard to see CCSS succeeding without higher education. In particular, awareness and support from the higher education community is needed in two areas: 1) assessing post-CCSS students’ college readiness and 2) teacher preparation.

Assessing college readiness

States that adopted the CCSS will administer new state assessments to measure students’ mastery of the standards. Funded in part by a 2010 grant of $330 million from the U.S. Department of Education, these assessments are being developed by two state-led assessment consortia: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. In New England, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont joined the Smarter Balanced consortium, while Massachusetts and Rhode Island are PARCC member states. Offered in both elementary school and high school, these new assessments may replace the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in Massachusetts and the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exam in the other New England states.

The higher education sector has been integral to the assessment design process for both consortia, particularly at the high school level. While not necessarily designed to be high-stakes assessments, some states and districts plan to use the high school assessment results to measure teacher effectiveness in addition to school and district accountability. The later high school assessment will also have “college-ready scores” in mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy that will signal readiness for college gateway courses in English and math.

As described by Melinda Treadwell, the provost of Keene State College, the CCSS and correlated assessments target the “critical minimum essentials” in terms of gauging the “domains that are key for college and life, namely critical thinking and analytical skills.”

Alison Jones, vice president of postsecondary collaboration at PARCC, said the assessment results will identify students who are not college ready and who need additional remediation by “helping postsecondary institutions make informed decisions about curriculum design and alignment, and the provision of academic services. … Community colleges could also use the results along with high schools to provide early interventions before students leave for postsecondary education.”

Moving forward, higher education institutions should consider:

  • What assessments are currently used to place students into (or out of) remedial coursework?
  • Can the new CCSS assessments be one of multiple measures used to determine students’ college readiness?
  • How will the CCSS assessment be used in the college admissions process, if at all?

Teacher preparation

In addition to college readiness, higher education has an important role to play in teacher readiness. The next generation of teachers has to be better prepared to enable students to meet the new expectations of the CCSS. Several New England states have recently embarked on efforts to realign teacher-preparation programs. Rhode Island, for example, has worked with PARCC to host a state meeting that addresses how the CCSS will drive changes in teacher preparation in mathematics. Deborah Grossman-Garber, associate commissioner for academic planning and policy for the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, said the agency has funded a number of projects to enhance the understanding of the CCSS among teacher-preparation faculty.

In New Hampshire, similar work is underway with joint conferences for K-20 faculty as well as math and science partnership grants for college faculty to deliver professional development to incumbent teachers. “We built teaching teams of elementary, middle and high school teachers with a college faculty member to take apart domains within the Common Core to develop better and more effective teaching strategies,” said Treadwell of Keene State.

Other states and schools of education should consider how their teacher-preparation programs align with the CCSS. For example, are teachers prepared to help students determine an author’s point of view in a text and evaluate any claims made by the author? Are they prepared to develop mathematical reasoning skills so that students can compute mathematical problems and then conceptualize whether or not the answer makes sense?

Looking to the future

Institutional leaders, college faculty and state education leaders all have a role to play moving forward. As Jones of PARCC said, “regardless of what the college president or chancellor may say, if the faculty doesn’t have faith and confidence in the college-readiness scores that are ultimately set for placing students into credit-bearing courses, they are not going to be supportive.”

Jacqueline King, director of higher education collaboration at Smarter Balanced, concurred, “State and institutional stakeholders must collaborate for successful implementation of the CCSS and the college-ready assessments.”

The feeling is shared by at least some in New England’s higher education community. “It’s an invaluable opportunity for meaningful conversations with K-12 partners about what college readiness really means,” said Treadwell.

Building upon this initial understanding and support for the standards and college-ready assessments will be even more important in the coming months. The debate about the CCSS assessments is hardly over. More state legislatures in the next legislative season will consider measures to delay, defund or simply stop the implementation of the CCSS. Still other states will withdraw or debate whether to withdraw from the assessment consortia.

Things may get especially dicey when the first sets of student scores are released after the initial assessment slated for 2014-15. Based on the experience when MCAS and NECAP were first administered, the results may be discouraging and even troubling if student results are lower than expected. But change takes time—perhaps even more time than the crafters of the CCSS and common assessments envisioned—to deeply implement the standards in schools across the nation and prepare students to take the assessments.

As a P-20 education community, we should stay the course and support schools and school district leaders and teachers in raising expectations and helping students meet the challenges of being college and career ready. From adopting the CCSS assessment results as one measure for determining a student placement into credit-bearing courses to collaborating across education sectors in teacher preparation, we must expect more from our students and ourselves.

Monnica Chan is NEBHE director of policy & research. NEBHE Senior Consultant Stafford Peat, along with Ashley Perzyna and Yinan Zhang, former NEBHE Policy Research Interns and recent graduates of Harvard Graduate School of Education, provided research support for this article.


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