Education Experts Propose Skills Set for Students Nationwide

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Experts convened by the nation's governors and state schools chiefs on Monday proposed a set of math and English skills students should master before high school graduation, the first step toward what advocates hope will become common standards driving instruction in classrooms from coast to coast.

The proposal aims to lift expectations for students beyond current standards, which vary widely from state to state, and establish for the first time an effective national consensus on core academic goals to help the United States keep pace with global competitors. Such agreement has proven elusive in the past because of a long tradition of local control over standards, testing and curriculum.

In math, the proposal envisions that students would be able to solve systems of equations; find and interpret rates of change; and adapt probability models to solve real-world problems. In English language arts, they would be able to analyze how word choices shape the meaning and tone of a text; develop a style and tone of writing appropriate to a task and audience; and respond constructively to advance a discussion and build on the input of others.

The proposal, posted at, was drafted over the summer by a group including experts affiliated with the organizations that oversee the ACT and SAT college admissions exams, as well as Achieve Inc., a standards advocate based in the District. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched the Common Core Standards Initiative this year, enlisting 48 states and the District of Columbia. The two holdouts are Texas, which recently updated its standards, and Alaska, where officials reportedly are reserving judgment.

The initiative has far to go. Experts are collecting comments for the next month. In 2010, they plan to write grade-by-grade standards from kindergarten onward. There is no guarantee that states will adopt the final product.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., a former Reagan administration education official, said Monday's development was significant. "We have now a public working draft of what could turn out to be the beginnings of national standards for K through 12 education," he said. "That's potentially a very big deal."

Monday's draft, according to Dane Linn, education director at the governors association's Center for Best Practices, was circulated among a wider group of experts, including Finn, and vetted by representatives from six states: California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts and Minnesota.

For many years, scholars and policymakers have debated whether public schools should be held to national academic standards. The 2002 No Child Left Behind law left it to states to determine what students ought to learn in reading and math and how they ought to be tested.

Proponents of national standards say it is folly to have uneven expectations for students when the United States trails several countries in Asia and Europe on international exams. Opponents say the federal government should not dictate what is taught.

"Advocates of true education reform -- rather than repackaging the same failed policies -- need to keep in mind a simple truth: Previous efforts to create national standards failed utterly because Americans have extremely varied educational wants and needs," said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute. "Efforts to address all of them with one-size-fits-all Beltway diktats will be fruitless at best, and quite harmful at worst."

Advocates of the initiative say what sets it apart is that the federal government is a bystander more than a player.

"This is more bottom-up than top-down," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, who was a Clinton administration education official. "It is very important that the federal government is not a key actor in this."

However, the Obama administration has been cheering the effort and is planning a $350 million grant competition to encourage states or groups of states to adopt common, high-quality standards and develop tests based on them.

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