If you've never heard of the Common Core standards, it's time to take note: They could have a big effect on what students will learn – and maybe also on the tests that measure their progress.
This attempt at creating uniform academic standards stringent enough to ensure that students in every state are ready for college or career has been years in the making. It is being pushed by the Obama administration, with help from organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal is to raise the bar nationally and make American students more competitive with those abroad.
Longtime proponents point out that individual state standards are all over the place in terms of rigor and expectations. They argue that clear standards for what students at each grade level should know and be able to do, drawn up by top educators and used nationwide, can benefit everyone. And they say it doesn't require dictating what happens in the classroom.
Opponents see yet another excuse for "teaching to the test" and point out that this effort will not address persistent achievement gaps within states.
Pennsylvania is one of 45 states that have signed on to the Common Core; in May the state Board of Education is expected to okay final adoption.
The state's Department of Education plans to revise its annual PSSA test to reflect the new, tougher standards.
And districts around the state, including Philadelphia, are trying to figure out what this will mean for their curriculum, instruction, and approach to teaching and learning.
Drafts of the standards (sponsored by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers) were released in 2010 for math and English language arts.
At the time, the Gates Foundation's education director, Vicki Phillips, said, "What they've come up with is a set of consistent standards that are both clear enough and high enough to prepare all students for success."
What they have actually come up with, critics say, is a waste of resources that would be better spent in the classrooms.
No help for 'achievement gap'
In a recent report, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution questions how much effect these – or any uniform national standards – can have. Differences in student performance within states are far greater than those between states, he says, citing a 2006 study by the National Center for Education Statistics that found no correlation between the rigor of state standards and student achievement.
Within-state gaps in achievement largely occur along lines of race, poverty, income, and other demographic factors. According to data collected by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, Pennsylvania has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country.
Loveless notes that all states have had their own academic standards since they were mandated in 2003 by the federal No Child Left Behind law, and this has done little to close achievement gaps.
"There's just a huge difference between what the [standards] writers intend, teachers teach, and children learn," he said. "The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools."
Adam Tucker, a Gates Foundation program officer, says that what critics like Loveless ignore is that having true national standards will get educators across the country speaking the same language – for instance, allowing what works in Massachusetts to translate more easily to what works in Montana.
"Adoption of standards alone will not increase student achievement," he added. "It comes down to how states and districts work with their schools."
Carolyn Dumaresq, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education, is optimistic about the standards' potential to raise student achievement. In math, "You have to do a little more work to find the answer," Dumaresq said. The new standards might mean certain subject matter would get introduced two or three grades earlier than it is now, she said.
Added Pennsylvania Department of Education consultant Jean Dyszel: "There's more emphasis on informational writing, deeper text analysis, more use of evidence based on texts."
Last spring, PDE revised questions to reflect the Common Core on the proposed Keystone Exams for high school students, which are being field-tested. "We had a slight dip in scores. It was a wakeup call," she said.
Dumaresq cautioned that there might also be declines when the PSSA tests for the elementary grades are aligned to the new standards. This is scheduled for the spring of 2014 for grades 3-5 and a year later for grades 6-8, following field testing.
Assessments are key
Arguments over the standards themselves, though, are less heated than those regarding the evaluation process that will accompany them.
In an interview posted on the Teaching Matters website, Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond said that the standards contain "a lot of good language ... about good critical thinking and problem-solving."
She added, however, that their end result would depend on other factors such as what kinds of teacher training take place and how the new assessments are structured. Pennsylvania has severely cut its education spending, and districts like Philadelphia have had to cut back on teacher support and training.
Darling-Hammond expressed concern that in the end, the assessments will still be frequent, high-stakes, and multiple-choice. She predicted that the tests will fail to change enough to measure the higher-order thinking and writing skills the Common Core aims to promote.
She also noted that this whole approach is in sharp contrast to what happens in many higher-achieving countries such as Finland and Singapore, which do not conduct annual, high-stakes tests.
Her concern is shared by many advocates. Instead of a broad, holistic curriculum, "we'll continue to see more narrow teaching to the test," predicted Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, a Boston-based advocacy group that works to prevent the misuse of standardized tests.
"It's a model of top-down centralization," Neill said. "We should be concerned about whether it produces mandated mediocrity or high quality."
Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey's Education Law Center, described the entire movement as "a top-down process driven by federal dollars." Karp also cites the potential for "profiteering."
"Computer-based testing means more money for data companies that should be going into classrooms," he said.
Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of current reform trends, has described the effort as "outsourcing" of crucial decisions around instruction and curriculum to educational publishers and test-making companies.
The view from Harrisburg, however, is that adopting the Common Core will "position our students to be more competitive," according to Dumaresq.
"They'll need less remediation when they go to college," she said. "But I want everyone to understand it's going to take a while."