46 States and D.C. to Pursue Common Education Standards

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia today will announce an effort to craft a single vision for what children should learn each year from kindergarten through high school graduation, an unprecedented step toward a uniform definition of success in American schools.

The push for common reading and math standards marks a turning point in a movement to judge U.S. children using one yardstick that reflects expectations set for students in countries around the world at a time of global competition. Today, each state decides what to teach in third-grade reading, fifth-grade math and every other class. Critics think some set a bar so that students can pass tests but, ultimately, are ill-prepared.

Led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the states, including Maryland and Virginia, are aiming to define a framework of content and skills that meet an overarching goal. When students get their high school diplomas, the coalition says, they should be ready to tackle college or a job. The benchmarks would be "internationally competitive."

Once the organizers of the effort agree to a proposal, each state would decide individually whether to adopt it.

The nearly complete support of governors for the effort -- leaders in Texas, Alaska, Missouri and South Carolina are the only ones that have not signed on -- is key. Many Republicans oppose nationally mandated standards, saying schools should not be controlled by Washington. But there is broad support for a voluntary effort that bubbles up from the states.

"This is the beginning of a new day for education in our country," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "A lot of hard work is ahead of us. But this is a huge step in a direction that would have been unimaginable just a year or two ago."

Duncan has said that today's patchwork system amounts to "lying to children and their parents, because states have dumbed down their standards." He and other critics say that disparity becomes clear in places where students earn high marks on state tests but fall short on national exams.

In Mississippi, for instance, 90 percent of fourth-graders passed the state reading exam in 2007, according to U.S. Department of Education data. But only 51 percent had at least "basic" or "partial mastery" on the test known as the Nation's Report Card.

In Maryland, 86 percent of fourth-graders passed the reading test, while 69 percent earned a basic score or better on the national test, according to federal data. And in Virginia, about 87 percent of fourth-graders passed the state test, while 74 percent reached at least a basic score on the national exam.

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the new expectations would be "higher, clearer and fewer."

There would be political pressure for states to show their children aren't at the bottom of the pack. But Wilhoit said the shift also would help improve schools. Companies and researchers could more easily create textbooks and professional training that meshed with the curriculum coast to coast. States under financial strain could pitch in scarce resources.

Margaret Spellings, who was education secretary under President George W. Bush, said in a recent interview that she supports states coming together to raise the bar for students. But she worries that the effort could distract attention from students who are failing today.

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