Will States' Varying Expectations Imperil Common Standards?
To date, 38 states have adopted the proposed Common Core State Standards Initiative put forth by the National Governors Association. A new report (PDF) from the American Institutes of Research (AIR) shows how important getting the last 12 states to sign on is by pointing out the vast gulf between the student performance expectations that currently exist between states.
According to its methodology, which sought to evaluate states' standards against international ones, only Massachusetts and South Carolina expect world class performances of their students. Massachusetts is comparable to Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong in fourth-grade reading; on par with Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, and Canada in fourth-grade math; and competitive with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong in eighth-grade math. South Carolina maintains world class standards in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading.
The gaps between states' expectations are, in some cases, more than twice the size of the achievement gap between white students and black students nationwide—amounting to a difference of four grade levels. To score as proficient on the Massachusetts eight-grade math exam, a student needs to fall in the 55th percentile—which is equivalent to being in the 4th percentile on Tennessee's version of the exam. (Yeah, that Tennessee, the same state that won $500 million in Race to the Top funds in the competition's first round.)
Mass-adoption of the Common Core State Standards won't be enough to make the entire nation internationally competitive, the AIR report says. Standards need to be set with an eye to making students competitive globally and technologically, according to a paradigm called the "Benchmark Method."
The key concept in the Benchmark Method of standard setting is that the performance-level descriptors represent a performance standard on the state test that is comparable to the rigor of the performance standard on the national or international test. The state then makes a policy decision on whether the benchmarked performance-level descriptor (on the state test) represents what the state wants their students to know and be able to do (e.g., in order to be considered proficient in mathematics). The performance levels should be challenging but achievable for most of the students in that grade.