As have 27 other states, Georgia has adopted the new national math and English/language art standards wrapped in the more palatable name of Common Core State Standards. (The phrase “national standards” gives too many people the willies.)
Now comes the hard part, getting students up to speed on the greater rigor embedded in the standards so they can pass the national tests that will eventually be developed. States can expect to see them in 2013 or 2014.
The expectation is that the tests will be a shock to many parents whose children are now being assessed on easier-to-pass state exams.
The battery of national tests based on the new standards will be the first opportunity American parents will have to see how their schools and their children stack up to counterparts elsewhere in the country.
Now, we now have 50 sets of standards and 50 sets of tests.
The transition to national standards will not be as rocky for Georgia as our standards — and presumably our CRCTs — are already aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which were developed by a consortium, including the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
And it isn’t just the state Department of Education that thinks so.
In its new evaluation of individual state standards and the Common Core, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington, D.C., awarded the Georgia Performance Standards and the Common Core Standards the same high grades: A-minus in math and B-plus in English/language arts. (Full disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was a funder.)
In its 370-page report, Fordham notes, “With some minor differences, Common Core and Georgia both cover the essential content for a rigorous k-12 mathematics program.”
“Georgia is neck to neck with the Common Core Standards,” said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy for the Fordham Institute.
In a media conference call this week that I joined, Fordham Institute researchers praised the Common Core Standards for giving U.S. schools strong guideposts to what students need to know to be ready to do college-level work or to obtain a decent job. That judgment didn’t come as a surprise as Fordham has long advocated national standards.
“That’s provided they’re good standards,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Fordham Institute.
“There is nothing to be gained to move to bad national standards. These have turned out to be pretty darn good, as good or better than what is used in most states today,” he says. “Odds are the country is going to be better off.”
It’s not a sure bet that the Core Standards will improve American academic performance because the hard part is ensuring that the curriculum, teachers and tests embrace the raised bar.
And that has been one of the chief complaints against Georgia’s revised math standards, that they were rolled out without adequate training of teachers. It is likely to be a complaint about the Common Core Standards since they demand a lot more of students.
“I would have a problem with the Common Core Standards in math and probably in upper level English,” admits Finn.
Now, Georgians have no ruler with which to gauge how their schools are doing compared to New York or California. National standards — bolstered by testing — would make it quite clear which states and school districts were failing their students.
But a strong national curriculum is only half the battle; the other challenge is creating a teaching force capable of teaching to those higher standards.
States want federal money to invest in teacher quality. Many, including Georgia, are hoping that adoption of the Common Core Standards will enhance their chances of winning a Race to the Top grant, a bonanza of federal millions that will go to states whose reform plans impress the U.S. Department of Education. Georgia narrowly missed winning a grant in the first round this spring.
Even without Race to the Top grants, which will only go to a few states when they are awarded in September, Petrilli says states can still improve their teaching forces.
He cites Massachusetts, which has witnessed better student outcomes since it imposed both challenging tests on high school students to graduate and on new teachers to land a job.
“Massachusetts has gotten a lot of traction from setting its test for new teachers at a higher level,” he says.
“It comes down to doing education well,” Petrilli says. “Regardless of the economic climate, we need to find a way to do it.”