Since the details of Secretary Duncan’s waiver plan began to trickle out, one of the most common questions was whether states would be required to adopt the Common Core State Standards to quality – not a surprising question, given that Common Core was a vital contributor to success in the Race to the Top competition and that President Obama has even floated making Title I funds contingent on adoption of the common standards. But state superintendents, district leaders, and school principals can breathe a sigh of relief on that score. Duncan has clarified that adoption of Common Core will not be required for states to receive a waiver.
However, state adoption of some form of college- and career-ready standards will be. Apparently, one portion of the waiver package will ask states to demonstrate they have rigorous academic standards for students that align with college and career readiness. If they do, states will be able to scrap their proficiency targets and no longer be held to reaching 100% student proficiency by 2014. This is good news for the states that have not fully adopted Common Core: Texas, Virginia, Nebraska, Alaska, Montana, and Minnesota. But it might actually be bad news for education advocates that have put stock in the promise that college- and career-ready standards will, in fact, lead to college and career readiness and improve upon the uneven, mediocre standards developed by the states as part of No Child Left Behind.
The first problem for advocates: if states are no longer required to get to 100% proficient by 2014, what level of proficiency is acceptable to the Department? Perhaps instead of setting another target like 75% proficiency by 2016, the waivers will focus more on growth. Student growth could be measured simply or through more sophisticated and complex growth models. Maybe there is another model the Department has in mind that looks at reducing achievement gaps between student groups. But a model should be included as part of the waiver package; without spelling out what should replace the 100% by 2014 goal, the Department would be abandoning the main lever for holding states accountable for improving student achievement.
The second worrisome detail for education advocates: just how will states demonstrate that students meeting their academic standards – Common Core or homegrown – will be college- and career-ready? Most likely, the Common Core standards will just be accepted by the Department as meeting the college- and career-ready guidelines without any further work on the part of states. In the six states that have not adopted Common Core, their institutions of higher education would go through some yet-to-be-explained process of certifying the states’ individual academic standards as college- and career-ready.
Will this certification process be meaningful? For instance, will a state’s public colleges and universities need to agree that students who are proficient on the standards in high school could bypass remedial courses and enroll directly in college-level work? That would certainly send a powerful message to educators and students that the standards themselves do equate with college readiness.
Doubtful. Community colleges and universities are not likely to abandon their placement policies for high school-proficient students on any standards – Common Core or otherwise. More likely, a commission or committee will be formed in each state that includes representatives from higher education and experts on standards and curriculum. Call me cynical, but I imagine that this group will review the state’s standards – perhaps by forming smaller working groups – over the course of a couple months, review the findings, vote on them, and then make a grand proclamation that the existing standards are college- and career-ready, as is.
Which is preferable? Reducing college readiness down to a cut score on a standardized test or rubber-stamping existing standards even though we know many high school graduates are not prepared for college? Neither. Instead of ignoring the issue or equating readiness to a cut score, states should be moving towards systems that take into account multiple measures of college readiness – including actual postsecondary outcomes. Standards aligned with college and career readiness can only take you so far; instruction, assessment, and accountability must also be designed with this goal in mind.
More on this in Part 2 of the Waiver Wire.