States aren't too far behind the curve when it comes to raising standards. That has been part of No Child Left Behind, and 37 states are matching their standards with college and career demands, according to Achieve, a nonprofit group that works with states on standards. And though each state gets to set its own standards, there are some common guidelines for what students should know to be successful after high school.
The Administration's Requirement
States need tougher guidelines for what students should know in subjects such as math, science, language arts, and history at specific points in their education. That means tougher classes, a broader list of courses, and strengthened graduation requirements.
But the Obama administration also wants all students to be ready for college. For states, that means closing gaps in achievement and making sure English-language learners and special education and low-income students have the same access to education as middle-class and upper-class college-bound kids.
How It Might Look
Federal standards don't exist, but there's a push to create a common core of standards that all states could use, says Scott Montgomery of the Council of Chief State School Officers. ACT, the College Board, and Achieve are collaborating on that common core of standards and hope to have much of it done this year, he says.
One recommendation for improving standards includes assessing how well state's college-prep classes actually prepare students for college. States need to be specific about what's required. For instance, instead of asking kids to take three years of math, state standards should specify courses such as algebra, geometry, and algebra II, according to the American Diplomacy Project, which works on college readiness.
To help close achievement gaps, schools also need to make accommodations for different learning styles. That might mean longer school days or new curricula that weave reading lessons into all subjects.
Where It's Already Being Done
Indiana, Massachusetts, California, and New Jersey are among the states with more nuanced standards. Indiana, for instance, includes in its language arts guidelines suggested reading lists for students at various grade levels.
New Jersey's recent update of standards includes personalized student-learning plans. The state is also about to start a pilot program that pairs up students with an adult mentor who can, among other things, help students understand the purpose of school and set and meet academic goals.
A Working Model
Massachusetts has long led the way, establishing state standards in 1993. Ten years later, the state required students to pass English and math assessments to graduate.
Massachusetts also has made strides raising scores in low-income districts through programs such as extended learning time. Twelve school districts take part in this program, which not only involves longer school days and summer programs but also includes redesigns of the curriculum to accommodate individual needs. The program adds 300 hours to school over the course of the year.
The Results So Far
Test scores in Massachusetts continue to improve, and the state consistently scores above the national average in all tested subjects on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. More students also pass the state tests on the first try rather than needing to repeat them to meet the graduation requirements.
At Jacob Hiatt Magnet School, in Worcester, Massachusetts, 82 percent of students scored at proficient or higher on the English language arts state test in 2008, up from 57 percent two years earlier. The school tweaked the curriculum and began using literacy blocks and extended learning time to help close the gap.
What You Can Learn
When the class of 2003 first took the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, only 68 percent of students passed. Instead of making the test easier, officials concentrated on getting help for the students who failed. By August 2003, 95 percent of students were passing. This is exactly what the Obama administration wants to see: Rather than dumbing down tests to make sure more students pass, states need to find ways to help all of their students reach higher goals.
In New Jersey, education officials recently discovered that only half of the kids who go on to college actually finish, in part because some need remedial classes once they get there, says Jay Doolan of the state's education department. To solve this problem, the state now requires high school students to take three years of math and science, and teachers will pilot end-of-year course assessments to gauge student performance and how well the courses stack up.
What You Can Do Locally
In New Jersey, the Pequannock Township School District helped raise achievement with a number of initiatives, including implementing a special reading program in the elementary schools. The program uses Lexile scores, which measure reading ability and the difficulty of the text, to place students in reading groups. The multiage groups meet daily for 45 minutes and act as a book club of sorts. In this system, a third grader reading at a sixth-grade level can read that level of books with other kids at the same reading level, regardless of their grade in school.
The results have shown up in test scores. For example, at Hillview Elementary School, in Pompton Plains, the school's test scores went from 255th in the state to 15th.
What This Means
The federal education department wants to increase the number of students who graduate from college. To do that, states must not only raise their expectations but also find new ways for all students to meet them. "That means," says Massachusetts secretary of education Paul Reville, "building a system to make sure all kids have access to the education and have time to master it."
Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.
This article is the third of four that outlines key steps to improving public education. Next, read about what to do about failing schools.