Guest Column

Common Core Standards Without National Testing?


A great deal of energy and support exists in many circles over the United States finally developing a common core set of standards for English-language arts and mathematics.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are committed to the development of these common standards, an effort supported by 48 states, professional organizations, businesses and government agencies.

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm is dampened because of the lack of commitment to put the same effort into developing a national test to measure those standards.
Although states are being asked and financially enticed to form consortia to develop a common test for those in the consortia, nothing compels a state to enter such an alliance. Even when joining a consortia, if the state doesn’t like the test that’s developed, it can withdraw and use any test it wants that meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind. In fact some states that originally supported the development of the standards have already indicated they will not be adopting them.

During the past year, education experts and elected officials across the country overwhelmingly emphasized the need for one set of academic standards in the core subjects. A considerable investment of dollars and effort has been put into developing those standards, and the subsequent review process has been extensive. What now seems incomprehensible is that after all that has been said and done to develop a single set of standards, states will have multiple options for determining whether their students have met those standards.

The Hypocrisy
Although states have supported common core standards, none has proposed a need for a national test. Ironically, these same states insist local school districts must administer a single statewide test to validate student achievement of their state standards.

Probably nothing demonstrates the fallacy of multiple tests more than a 2009 study published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The study, “Mapping State Proficiency Stand-ards Onto NAEP Scales,” shows that in most states fewer than 50 percent of students, classified as meeting their own state’s proficiency standards in reading and math, scored high enough to be rated proficient on the NAEP national tests for reading and math.

A study released last spring by Paul E. Peterson and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón, both affiliated with Harvard, reported: “Every state, for both reading and math (with the exception of Massachusetts for math), deems more students ‘proficient’ on its own assessments than NAEP does. The average difference is a startling 37 percentage points.”

The most misleading perception being put out there, though, is that the common core standards and the assessment of those standards are state efforts and not something required by the U.S. Department of Education or the current administration. While states have not been mandated to adopt the standards, the Department of Education has made it perfectly clear: A state won’t be eligible for millions of federal dollars unless it adopts the common core standards.

So why are people trying to disguise what the common core standards really are? One needs only to look at the bruises previous administrations suffered when they tried to promote a national assessment to know why this approach is being taken. You’ve heard the saying, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and makes a noise like a duck, chances are it probably is a duck.” These important standards are being viewed as national standards, and we need to be straightforward about the need for a national test to measure their attainment.

A Right to Know
Ever since I’ve been involved in education, parents, employers and community members have wanted to know just where their students and schools stood competitively. They have asked how they ranked not only locally but also in their state, nationally and, in some cases, internationally. It means little to anyone if students are rated proficient in their own state but may not be considered proficient nationally or even in another state to which they might relocate.

Throughout the United States, parents lack a realistic understanding of their children’s performance level. Because of wide-ranging philosophies and practices in schools, it is not unusual for students to have all A’s and B’s on their report cards, earn “met standard” ratings on their state and local tests, and yet still perform significantly below grade level. While the merits of certain practices may be defended, parents should not have to wait for their children to take the SATs to know where they stand on a national scale.

Like the SATs, a national assessment would not be perfect, but it would yield information that parents, employers and the public need to know and are entitled to know.

State Powers
If we are to truly have common core stand-ards for our country, we need national tests. Many argue correctly that education is a right given to the states by the Constitution. However, national tests for math, reading and language arts do not interfere with that right or prohibit individual states from doing their own additional assessments. National tests also do not interfere with states determining how, when and where students are taught or any of the other powers states have regarding education.

James Wilson, a former superintendent, is a member of the state board of education in Delaware. E-mail: