The Obama Administration has granted waivers from No Child Left Behind to 33 states and the District of Columbia in return for adopting college- and career-ready standards, creating new accountability systems, and implementing teacher and principal evaluation and support systems*. The Department defines “college- and career-ready standards” as:
…content standards for kindergarten through 12th grade that build towards college and career readiness by the time of high school graduation. A State’s college- and career-ready standards must be either (1) standards that are common to a significant number of States; or (2) standards that are approved by a State network of institutions of higher education, which must certify that students who meet the standards will not need remedial course work at the postsecondary level [emphasis original].
Because 45 states have already adopted the Common Core, it’s not a surprise that the vast majority of states granted waivers have selected Option 1. However, Option 2 allows non-Common Core states to also qualify as long as their higher education institutions certify that students meeting the standards will be ready for college-level work.
The key verb under Option 2 is “certify.” The Department repeats this language in the official state waiver request form. It asks states selecting this option to, “Attach a copy of the memorandum of understanding or letter from a State network of [institutions of higher education] certifying that students who meet these standards will not need remedial coursework at the postsecondary level” [emphasis added].
Seven more states, plus Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education, are requesting flexibility this fall. Both Alaska and Puerto Rico are attempting to meet Option 2 with a letter from the president of their university systems (Both letters are labeled as attachment 5 in the state requests, available for download on the Department’s website). The letters look nearly identical to each other. Here’s the one from Alaska:
As President of the University of Alaska, I am pleased to confirm that our State’s K-12 academic standards in English/language arts and mathematics are designed to provide the academic preparation that students need to succeed at the postsecondary institutions of the University of Alaska system. We believe that a student who masters these standards will not require remedial coursework in English/language arts or mathematics at our campuses.
…. It is too early to measure the effectiveness of the standards mastery in relation to students requiring remediation in higher education. The University is currently conducting a validity study to examine entry-level postsecondary courses and determine the degree to which the new Alaska standards represent the knowledge and skills necessary for postsecondary readiness….We are hopeful the findings of the study will demonstrate the new Alaska standards prepare students for post-secondary readiness at our University. In the meantime, we hope that you will accept our institutional confidence as you consider Alaska’s application for a waiver from elements of No Child Left Behind [emphasis added].
Notice the language used here. They “confirm” that the standards “are designed to provide” students the academic content to succeed in higher education. They “believe” that students who meet the standards will be eligible for college-level courses, but “it is too early to measure” this. There is no “certification;” there is no policy behind this sentiment.
In his letter, the University of Puerto Rico President Miguel A. Munoz also includes a line recommending, “…prospective students meeting High School Pre-Calculus standards should be advised to take the Puerto Rico College Entrance Examination Board’s advance level math test to seek first year placement in a Calculus or other higher level mathematics courses.” In other words, the President of the University of Alaska and the President of the University of Puerto Rico feel pretty good about the quality of the standards in their state, but they’re not willing to make any promises.
It’s fair to point out that Option 1, the Common Core, does not come with any such guarantee either. But both of the two testing consortia aligned to the Common Core are working to ensure higher education’s buy-in, and they’re explicitly attempting to set cut scores that line up with actual college performance. It’s still unclear how that process will play out. Alaska and Puerto Rico, on the other hand, don’t appear to be promising anything of the sort.
The Department’s policies rightly say that college- and career-readiness needs to mean that students are actually ready for college, but how they interpret what exactly “college- and career-ready” means will have two implications. . One, it will suggest to other states attempting to go this route that they don’t really need to have standards that are backed by policies that ensure a student who meets them will be considered college- and career-ready; they just need a letter saying the standards are pretty good. Other non-Common Core states, and even states that are part of the Common Core now but decide to back out later, may see that as an easy escape valve.
Two, the Harkin-Enzi ESEA reauthorization bill that cleared the Senate HELP Committee last fall used a similar framework but with weaker language. It asked states to align their academic standards with academic coursework, without the need for remediation, at public institutions of higher education, but it stopped short of requiring states to certify that students meeting standards in K-12 will be considered “ready” by the state’s colleges and universities. This feint in the right direction could be the new standard for the entire country.
Roughly three million students begin college each year, and nearly one million of them will be required to take at least one remedial class. But if we’re serious about college- and career-ready standards, we need to make sure they mean something for students arriving on college campuses.
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*Disclosure: Until recently, I worked at the Department of Education on the team responsible for crafting and implementing the ESEA Flexibility initiative. I left before the latest round of state requests and did not have any involvement with the states discussed in this blog.