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Common Standards for K-12 Education?: Considering the Evidence - Summary of a Workshop Series 1 Introduction Every state in the United States now has its own standards for education from kindergarten through grade 12, at least in core subjects. Some are based on content standards developed by professional societies in mathematics, English language arts, science, civics, foreign languages, and other academic subjects. Other organizations also have developed their own standards and benchmarks. For example, Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) offers standards developed with the goal of applying a consistent structure and degree of rigor and specificity to standards in diverse subjects (http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/). This abundance of standards reflects a vigorous response to the call for high standards articulated in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), and it also poses a variety of questions for educators, policy makers, and the public more than 20 years later. What role are these standards playing? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the reform efforts that have been anchored by these standards? How are these standards applied, and how might standards-based reforms be improved? Would a move toward national standards in core academic subjects lead to improved instruction and learning? How might common standards be developed? Would this approach be feasible? These questions were the stimulus for the workshop series summarized in this report. Although the position that there should be a single set of academic standards in core subjects that states would be encouraged or required
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Common Standards for K-12 Education?: Considering the Evidence - Summary of a Workshop Series to adopt or closely model is not new, a number of groups have recently advocated it. The discussion surrounding renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has focused new attention on the effects of the current model, in which states independently develop standards that vary widely in focus and content. As Judith Rizzo of the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy noted in explaining the impetus for the workshop series, NCLB has shone a “spotlight on the incredible variability of state test scores, both within and among states.” The variation in student performance has caused many to wonder whether the logical next step for a nation committed to improving achievement for all students is to move toward common standards. The Commission on No Child Left Behind, the Education Trust, the Fordham Foundation, and the American Federation of Teachers are among those who have argued in favor of voluntary national, or common, standards as a means of improving both achievement and equity (Goertz, 2007; Massell, 2008). Others have argued against common standards on the grounds that states, school districts, and teachers need flexibility to serve their students’ needs and that reaching consensus on the shape and content of common standards—and even on a workable process for establishing that consensus—would be a formidable challenge. Complicating the discussion is the fact that evaluations of existing state standards in core subjects by such groups as Editorial Projects in Education, the Fordham Foundation, and the American Federation of Teachers have found many of them wanting (American Federation of Teachers, 2003; Editorial Projects in Education, 2008; Gross et al., 2005). A further complication is the fact that the term “standards” is used in a somewhat imprecise way. In the context of the workshops it was generally used to refer to both content standards, which describe material that students should be expected to learn, and performance standards, which describe the level of proficiency or mastery expected of them. Most state standards specify both. To support analysis of these conflicting points of view, the committee wished first to examine the ways in which standards are currently functioning in the states and then to consider possible approaches to implementing common standards that could apply in all the states. Four questions guided the examination of the status quo: What are the major roles that standards play in state K-12 education policy and practice? What are the major strengths and weaknesses of K-12 state standards-based reform efforts with respect to achieving efficiency, equity, and quality? What are states doing to achieve these goals? How and to what degree are the strengths and weaknesses of reform efforts related to the standards themselves? How and to
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Common Standards for K-12 Education?: Considering the Evidence - Summary of a Workshop Series what degree have the standards changed other education policies in states? How and to what degree are the strengths and weaknesses of reform efforts related to having unique state standards? To structure the examination of possible approaches to the development and implementation of common standards, the committee developed an options and evaluation framework, which served two purposes. Highlighting the major dimensions along which standards systems might vary served both as a reminder of the principal elements in a thoughtful discussion of options and as a guide for thinking through the elements about which choice would be possible. The report begins, in Chapter 2, with an overview of the current status of standards in the states, which includes a look at the views of policy makers from five states and analyses of the ways in which current standards vary across several dimensions. Chapter 3 provides greater detail about the options and evaluation framework developed by the committee. Chapter 4 discusses analysis of the quality of content standards and of the impact of standards on educational outcomes. Chapter 5 provides a framework for considering the cost implications of a move to common standards, as well as an estimate of those costs, and Chapter 6 explores the political feasibility of this policy and the implications such a move might have for legal rulings regarding educational adequacy. A range of perspectives on possibilities for common standards are explored in Chapter 7, which describes the views of several observers, as well as two examples of efforts to develop common standards, the New England Common Assessment Program and the American Diploma Project’s Algebra II end-of-course exam. The final chapter is a synthesis of the key issues that surfaced in the two workshops. Appendix A contains the first workshop agenda and list of participants and Appendix B contains these materials for the second workshop.
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