Commission Letter on Common Standards Initiative

October 21, 2009

National Governors Association
Council of Chief State School Officers
Washington, DC

To Whom It May Concern:

The Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind commends the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers for undertaking the difficult but vital work of crafting and building support for a set of high, common academic standards for our nation’s students.

The Commission was an early supporter of this concept when we called for the creation of voluntary national standards and tests in February 2007’s Beyond NCLB, our blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We continue to believe that adopting, teaching to, and measuring against well-designed high, common standards will improve the quality and equity of education across not only state lines, but also economic and racial lines. As you know, low and uneven standards are putting students at an incredible disadvantage. In far too many states, it is possible for students to meet expectations on state assessments, only to find themselves unprepared for college-level work or entry-level job requirements. High-quality common standards aligned to college- and work-readiness will ensure that all students—regardless of zip code—learn what they need to succeed beyond graduation.

Given the importance of this effort, we are pleased that nearly all states have joined together for the first phase of the Common Core Standards Initiative, and that support for the concept of high, common standards is growing considerably. While the Commission will leave the grading of the draft standards to subject matter experts, we urge you to address several concerns about their implementation and impact on broader reform efforts outlined below.

Comparison mechanism
It is vital that there be a mechanism for comparing the final common standards and correlating assessments to those of any state that ultimately chooses not to adopt them. The Commission recommended this check and balance in Beyond NCLB to ensure that there is meaningful transparency about the relative rigor of standards and tests in states that choose not to participate in any common effort. For those states that claim they are not participating because their own expectations are more rigorous, such a public comparison will offer either proof or pressure to raise them. The U.S. Department of Education could fund the development of a common metric to facilitate this comparison.

Similarly, once high, common standards are in place, it is important that there be a mechanism(s) to ensure that states’ high school exit and college entrance requirements are aligned. A study conducted for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board by MetaMetrics, Inc. of the causes of high remediation rates among the state’s postsecondary students revealed a mismatch in expectations set at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Specifically, the study found that the entry-level texts assigned at all levels of higher education in the state—at technical colleges, community colleges, and four-year colleges—were more challenging than those mastered by students who scored proficient on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Several other states have also undertaken similar studies of the alignment between their K-12 standards and entry-level demands of their post secondary education systems. We must ensure that the end result of the Common Core Standards Initiative is a set of consistent expectations that ensure students who are deemed proficient graduate from high school ready for the level of work they will encounter in college and their careers.

Continued strong accountability
The Commission believes it is critical that the common standards effort not be advanced at the expense of NCLB requirements of accountability for results in improving student achievement. As we move toward setting a higher bar and once it is in place, the temptation will be great to ease up on measuring progress and taking the difficult and often unpopular actions required when schools and students struggle. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.

Too many students are not mastering what is expected of them under today’s patchwork of standards and assessments. Setting a new, higher target is critical but must not distract us from the urgent work of addressing that problem now. If we set higher standards but do not hold schools accountable for helping students get there, then common standards will be meaningless for millions of children and of little use to our nation. Adopting common standards should be seen not as an excuse to do less, but rather as an opportunity to do more.

Planning for implementation
It is not too early to begin planning for the implementation of common standards beyond their formal adoption in states. High-quality assessments to accompany the standards must be developed, validated, and ready to administer as soon as the standards are adopted to ensure that there is not gap in measuring students’ progress. For many teachers, common standards may entail a dramatic shift in the sequence, scope, and content of what they teach. They may need assistance in translating the standards into curricula and professional development to help them teach to the new standards. These and other matters will require thoughtful and thorough planning to ensure that the success of the common standards enterprise is not jeopardized by weak implementation.

Thank you for your consideration of these comments. We hope they are helpful as you continue to work toward finalizing and securing state adoption of a set of common, fewer, clearer, higher academic standards that, if mastered, will ensure students are prepared for college and the workplace.


Gary Huggins
Executive Director

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