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Statements and Letters

A Good Start—But Miles to Go Before Students Actually Meet High Standards

A Statement on the Core Common Standards

By Carol Geary Schneider, president, Association of American Colleges and Universities

March 11, 2010

The National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers should be applauded for the release this week of a set of common core standards designed to help today’s  students prepare for success in college and in a rapidly changing and competitive global economy.  The architects of these standards have facilitated a very important first step by developing benchmark goals that are keyed to the rising demands of the economy and our democracy.  It is especially encouraging to see that the standards place a strong emphasis on teaching students to apply their learning to complex questions and to engage in critical inquiry and guided research in high school.  I warmly hope that states around the country will embrace these standards and use them to transform our nation’s schools, increase student achievement, and contribute to rebuilding America’s economic and democratic vitality.

Adopting these standards is, at best, however, only a small step forward.  We have hard work ahead to help American students really prepare for the realities of this turbulent global century.   That work begins with a careful parsing of what the standards do—and do not—actually address.

First—and most importantly—we need to be realistic about where today’s students actually are in terms of achievement.  Without this dose of realism, we will seriously underestimate the task before us and mislead both students and their parents about the widening gap between what employers expect and students’ levels of accomplishment on many essential learning outcomes.  Second, these standards cover, at best, only about one-third of the school curriculum. High school seniors could meet these admirable standards for math and English and still remain—as most Americans currently are—scientifically and culturally illiterate, ignorant of American history, unaware of histories and cultures outside the U.S., and unable to communicate in any language other than English.   Third, helping more students actually reach these common core standards will require far-reaching changes in the ways that high schools and colleges operate and how they collaborate to build genuine ladders of opportunity for America’s students from all backgrounds. 

The common standards are an important first step, but much more is needed to make these goals achievable.

Facing Up to the Achievement Shortfall 
The standards released this week, while serious and detailed, are highly aspirational.  They are certainly the result of a very serious and research-based process, but the sobering fact is that many of today’s college sophomores and juniors are not yet reaching these levels of achievement. And these are the students who have already graduated from high school and are currently receiving college credits.

This observation is based on research the Association of American Colleges and Universities has recently completed as part of its national VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) initiative.  Funded with initial support from State Farm Companies Foundation and major support from the  Department of Education, the VALUE project engaged hundreds of faculty members in colleges and universities across the country in developing a set of assessment “rubrics” to evaluate early, intermediate, and advanced levels of student competence in 15 areas of college learning—including such skills and abilities as writing, critical thinking, reading, oral communication, teamwork, quantitative reasoning, and problem solving.  There is a high degree of overlap between several of these rubrics and the proposed common core exit standards for high school achievement in math and English. 

The VALUE rubrics were tested against the work of actual college students on many different campuses.   The results confirm a significant  gap between where high school graduates need to be and where fully enrolled college students currently are.  The full set of rubrics can be found on AAC&U’s Web site.

The VALUE rubrics show, for several crucial areas, that the standards being set this week for high school juniors and seniors reflect a level of accomplishment that many ADVANCED college students aren’t yet achieving. 

I emphasize this disconnect, not to critique the new common core standards, but to underscore the very hard work that lies ahead.   The simple fact of the matter is that college faculty in every kind of institution currently are engaged in serious catch-up efforts in the early years of college to overcome the preparation deficit that many high school graduates bring with them to campus.   This is the ultimate problem that school and college educators need to work together to solve.

Math and English Are Not Enough
Another significant limitation of the new standards is in their scope.  To reap the full benefit of their college studies, today’s students need far more than just reading, writing, and math skills.  We should not delude ourselves that reaching these common core standards would be enough to adequately prepare today’s students for success in the new knowledge economy or in their personal and civic lives.   The new standards have simply tabled for future attention many essential learning outcomes that today’s employers are urging educators to emphasize much more than they already do. 

A late 2009 national survey (pdf) revealed that 89 percent of employers do want colleges to place more emphasis on written and oral communication.  However, some two thirds of the respondent employers also want more emphasis on science and technology, global knowledge, teamwork skills, cross-cultural competence, and ethical decision-making.  Employers also urged more attention to research experiences, to real-world application, and to assignments that involve students with ethical dilemmas and choices.  (See for all AAC&U employer and other public opinion surveys.)

And, beyond the needs of American employers, our democracy desperately needs today’s students to attain much higher literacy levels in areas of learning that are fundamental to informed citizenship—including global and civic knowledge, second language competence, science and technology, and historical and cross-cultural literacies, among others.    A self-governing democracy needs and depends on citizens’ comprehension of the issues they face and the institutional and societal practices they can use to solve major problems.  The liberal arts and sciences provide a necessary foundation for civic knowledge and engagement.  But the new standards address only a fraction of the liberal arts and sciences.  English and math are necessary, of course.  But they certainly are not sufficient.

I am already hearing common core enthusiasts argue that, if students can meet these new standards by, say age 15 or 16 – which, of course, many American students certainly can—they should proceed directly to college.  This is a stunningly truncated view of what it means to be well-prepared for higher education.

Before students arrive in college, they need to meet high standards on many areas of pre-collegiate study, including science, history, world histories and cultures, citizenship, languages and the arts.  But twenty-first century standards for these areas of learning have yet to be set!

Strengthening one third of the school curriculum is a big step forward.  But it still falls significantly short of where we need to be. 

The Transformations We Need
Finally, the release of today’s set of common core standards lays out many laudable goals for students’ acquisition of skills and knowledge.  But standards by themselves are not a strategy for systemic change.  At the school level, what good will it do to set robust performance standards for math and English if the states continue to make multiple choice tests the ultimate arbiter of students’ attainment levels?   The logic of these new standards is that students need to spend extensive time on reading, writing, projects, research, real-world applications, and engagement with unscripted problems.  By definition, these kinds of problems do not lend themselves to “one right answer.” But if teachers are evaluated on test performance, and high-stakes state tests continue to emphasize only recall and multiple choice answers, the standards will be ultimately seen as optional, not essential.

For these standards to take root, we will need very different approaches to assessment.  For starters, we’ll need to assess whether students are even engaging in high effort, high impact assignments and projects in order to meet the common core standards.  If they aren’t, they won’t meet the standards.  Period.  But with discussions already abounding about spending a billion dollars to develop yet another generation of  tests, there is good reason to worry that the ultimate drivers of p-12 attention—those all important standardized tests—will still remain tethered to the educational vision of the age of the assembly line.

The best way to see whether students are making progress on the goals set by the standards is to assess—against rubrics keyed to the standards—the work students produce within the actual curriculum—their research papers, projects, essay tests, websites, journals, lab reports, and field experiences.  While this performance-based approach to assessment has many proponents, it remains to be seen whether it can prevail against the nation’s ongoing conviction that standardized tests are the ultimate arbiter of accomplishment. 

Far-reaching changes will also be needed at the college, community college, and university level for these standards to make a lasting difference.  Colleges and universities will need to take these standards into account in their admissions expectations, their placement practices, the redesign of first-year and general education studies, their collegiate assessments, their developmental programs and their pre-collegiate outreach programs.  As many have pointed out, the standards call for changes in teacher preparation.  But teacher preparation is not a segregated area of study in most colleges and universities.  Future teachers take a large portion of their full degree program in studies outside the schools or departments of education.  Thus, calls for changes in teacher preparation also are calls for changing the way we educate all college students.  Or, to put it differently, meeting twenty-first century standards will call for a remapping of students’ progress from school through college graduation, not just for an overhaul of the pre-collegiate curriculum.

The fact is that the world itself is demanding more and these rising demands call for changes up and down the line in the way we organize the curriculum to prepare today’s graduates for twenty-first century challenges.  Setting and aligning student learning outcomes standards from school through college for key competencies is a necessary step, but only the beginning. 

What Is Needed Next
I sincerely hope that the nation’s governors and legislators will embrace these common core standards.  But I also hope that—with support from the federal government, NGOs, foundations, and individual citizens—students, parents, and educators all across the country—they will make a serious commitment to the next steps needed to truly prepare more of America’s students for success in college, work, and life. 

The Association of American Colleges and Universities began urging the nation—school and college educators alike—to set “Greater Expectations” for student accomplishment a decade ago, with its far-reaching foundation-supported exploration of essential learning outcomes and the practices that might help students achieve them.  Five years ago, in 2005, we committed ourselves as a community to devote at least ten years of effort to what we call LEAP, a far-reaching effort to help all students meet high standards on a full array of twenty-first century learning outcomes.  LEAP – an acronym for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, underscores the intimate connection between learning in the arts and sciences and readiness to contribute and succeed in the current era of global interdependence. 

With LEAP already providing a framework for the achievement of a full array of essential learning outcomes, the  1220 college and university members of AAC&U—private, public, 2-year, 4-year—stand ready to partner with state leaders, school administrators, and teachers to develop additional standards in essential knowledge and skill areas and to assist in developing curricular assignments and pathways from school through college that will raise the levels of student achievement and secure America’s future. 

The truth is that every American student deserves, across school and college, the advantages of an engaged and rigorous liberal education—the kind of education that will truly prepare all of them for success in college, work, and life.