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STANDARDS MOVEMENT GAINING STEAM: Duncan Announces Plan to Commit Up to $350 Million for Assessments Linked to Common Standards

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“For too long, we’ve been lying to kids.”

Earlier this month, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) announced that forty-six states and the District of Columbia have signed on to a joint effort to develop a common core of state standards in English language arts and mathematics for grades K–12.1 The standards will be “research and evidence-based, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations, and include rigorous content and skills,” according to a press release from CCSSO.

NGA and CCSSO will create an expert validation committee to undertake an independent review of the common core state standards, as well as grade-by-grade standards that emerge from this effort. The organizations were careful to point out that the validation committee will consist of nationally and internationally recognized education experts who are neutral to—and independent of—the process. They expect the college- and career-ready standards to be completed in July while the grade-by-grade standards work should come in December.

In a June 14 address at the 2009 Governors Education Symposium in Cary, North Carolina, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed strong support for the state-led common standards movement. The symposium was cosponsored by NGA and the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy and included twenty-one of the nation’s governors in its attendance, as well as some chief state school officers.

“For too long, we’ve been lying to kids,” Duncan said. “We tell them they’re doing fine, give them good grades, and tell them they’re proficient on state tests that aren’t challenging. Then they get to college and they’re put into remedial classes. Or they go into the workforce and find out that they don’t have the skills they need to succeed. We need standards that will get them ready for the day after they graduate. That means they must be rigorous. Today, our standards are too low—and the results on international tests show it.”

Duncan said that the standards that emerge from the state-led process must be “rigorous” and limited to the “essential knowledge and skills” that students need. He added that current standards are too broad and cover thirty-five to forty topics per subject in each grade compared to fifteen or twenty in many high-performing countries. “Teachers scramble to cover everything…and not enough of what’s really important. They can’t dig deeper on a challenging subject that excites their students. And students can’t master material when they are racing through it.”

Duncan acknowledged that higher standards will make some states look bad in the short term because fewer students will be meeting them. He pledged to work with states to ensure that they are not penalized for “doing the right thing.” He added that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will allow the administration to change the law so that it rewards states for raising standards.

“I always give [the No Child Left Behind Act] credit for exposing the achievement gap but the central flaw in the law is that it was too loose about the goals and too tight about how to get there,” Duncan said. “As states come together around higher common standards, I want to flip it—and be tighter about the goals—but more flexible in how you can meet them.”

To help measure whether students are meeting the new standards that states set, Duncan announced that the U.S. Department of Education will provide up to $350 million to states to create rigorous assessments that are linked to the new standards that emerge from the state-led effort. The money will come from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund, which was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Once new standards are set and adopted you need to create new tests that measure whether students are meeting those standards,” Duncan said. “We need tests that measure whether students are mastering complex materials and can apply their knowledge in ways that show that they are ready for college and careers. We need tests that go beyond multiple choice—and we know that these kinds of tests are expensive to develop. It will cost way too much if each state is doing this on its own. Collaboration makes it possible for this to happen quickly and affordably.”

In an effort to ward off claims that a commonly created test could be a threat to state control, Duncan stressed that states will create the tests, drive the process, and “call the shots.” He also encouraged the governors to work together to develop benchmark tests that can help teachers understand how their students are doing during the school year and help target instruction accordingly.

1) The four missing states are Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas. (Clicking on the hyperlink will load a newspaper article explaining why the state is not included in the effort).

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