A return to low academic standards for Arizona?

Opinion, Arizona Daily Star, February 10, 2014 - 

For almost two decades now, the U.S. has been working to improve its schools by holding them accountable for results on standardized tests. There’s been some success, with America’s lowest-performing students showing marked gains. Unfortunately, students in the middle or at the top have not made similar progress. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the standards and tests that most states put into place — including in Arizona — were set at ridiculously low levels. The federal No Child Left Behind act, in fact, encouraged this behavior by demanding that states aim to get 100 percent of their students to the “proficient” level by 2014 — but let the states define proficiency. The Common Core State Standards, which Arizona adopted in 2010 (and now called College and Career Ready Standards), were the product of a multiyear, state-led effort aimed at aligning school expectations for students with real world demands of the real world (both college and modern jobs). The Thomas B. Fordham Institute — the conservative think tank where we examine policy issues and promote reforms in K-12 education — reviewed Arizona’s old standards as well as the Common Core State Standards and found them to be comparable. Yet Arizona also set the bar quite low in the past by declaring many students at a “proficient” level who were performing at a basic or even below-basic level on core English and mathematics skills. These shortsighted policies meant many young people pass these standardized tests, yet graduate from high school unready for college-level work in the core subjects, and unready for decent-paying jobs. As a result, many were sent to “remediation,” leaving taxpayers to pay twice to educate them. (According to a recent study, Arizonans could have saved some $81 million in 2007-08 on such remediation.) We have long advocated for higher, clearer school standards that focus on essential skills and vital knowledge to prepare students to be productive, self-sufficient citizens. We also believe key education decisions belong with states, communities, teachers and parents and were therefore glad the Common Core limited its work to standards and did not push into curriculum or instruction. We have been puzzled recently by the small but vocal minority of conservatives who have joined forces with some on the far left to oppose the Common Core. It’s appropriate, of course, to worry about threats like federal intervention into schools, ideological indoctrination of students and poor-quality instruction. But the Common Core doesn’t promote any of those things. Instead, the Common Core pushes schools, teachers and students to higher levels of achievement and deeper levels of skill-and-content knowledge than most have accomplished in the past. Leaders in Arizona were elected to ensure the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on public education are used effectively and efficiently. These officials should now stand up to misguided and ill-informed political attacks and demand answers from both liberal and conservative critics of the Common Core: Would those on the left really remove testing and other measures that ensure that parents and teachers know whether students are learning all that they should — and how to help those who aren’t? Would those on the right really have Arizonans send their children to schools that are forced to scrap the standards they have spent time and money implementing and move to ones that might be worse? We welcome debate over the Common Core but the facts are clear: Arizona, to its credit, has opted to raise expectations for student learning. Opponents have an obligation to say what they would do instead. If someone offers a better option, we will support it. If states choose to use flexibility built into the Common Core to improve their standards even more, we will support that, too. In the meantime, attention and energy should go into devising the best way to put it into practice in Arizona and to ensure that future tests report accurately on how students and schools are doing in relation to these ambitious standards. Arizona made a choice for the better when it adopted the Common Core. It should not turn back now, especially under pressure from a few loud opponents without a better plan. Michael J. Petrilli and Michael Brickman are, respectively, executive vice president and national policy director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.