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Dropping the Ball?

July 22, 2014

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is supposed to prepare K-12 students for higher education -- but college and university faculty members and administrators remain largely removed from planning and rolling out these new assessments and standards. So argues a new paper from the New American Foundation, which urges colleges and universities to get involved in the Common Core to ensure the program ends up doing what it was supposed to do.

Although the idea has been controversial, the Common Core has many advocates and is currently being followed in 43 states. (The original number was 45, but two states have backed out amid concerns that adherence to a national curriculum upends local control, among other concerns -- although proponents say standards aren't the same as a curriculum.) In theory, college and faculty members stand to gain quite a lot from the Common Core and should embrace it, despite criticism it is receiving from both the left and right, supporters say.

"Higher education has an active role to play in making sure these standards are a success, and not just by playing a cheerleader role,” said Lindsey Tepe, author of “Common Core Goes to College: Building Better Connections Between High School and Higher Education.” “Colleges should look at what the [Common Core is] is doing to ensure that students coming through their doors are college- and career-ready not as an ephemeral goal but rather one more step on the way to higher education.”

At best – and only with support from state-level policy makers and others, including colleges and university faculty members and administrators – the Common Core has the potential to reduce remediation for community college students, the paper says. That could mean better completion rates.

At the four-year college level, the paper says, the Common Core has the potential to make applying for college easier and less mysterious. How? Common Core-based assessments that students are set to take earlier on in their high school careers could replace or at least offer more information about college readiness than the current SAT and ACT tests. (That's not a position that the testing organizations have endorsed, although they are strong backers of the Common Core.)

Such tests have relatively low predictive ability for college aptitude, compared to grade point averages, Tepe said, and stand as “barriers to entry” for some college students, particularly first-generation ones.

Tepe said she didn’t imagine that such external tests would disappear entirely – especially since the College Board recently announced a major overhaul to the SAT and ACT has launched ACT Aspire, a longitudinal assessment product that is supposed to align with Common Core standards. Elite universities in particular may choose to retain such tests, but others – including “anchor” state universities – would do well to consider weighing Common Core-based assessments in admissions decisions, she said.

That’s one of the recommendations the paper makes as to how colleges and universities can get involved in the Common Core process. Similarly, where test scores are used as a proxy for college readiness to award financial aid, students should be allowed to demonstrate aptitude with such college- and career-ready assessment scores.

And as those college- and career-ready assessments are being developed and adopted, the paper says, they should provide greater “clarity and consistency” between assessment scores and preparation for specific higher education coursework. Developmental coursework, when required, also should be clearly aligned with high school Common Core standards.

Lastly, teacher education programs should thoroughly prepare students to teach and assess the Common Core’s college- and career-ready standards.

“To address the many policy issues plaguing this transition, officials within and across states must engage to amend inconsistent policies, increase the usefulness of new assessment tools, and overhaul outdated practices,” the paper says. “Crafting more inclusive policies that account for the creation of new Common Core assessments will level the path to higher education, while linking higher education practices to the standards themselves will pave a smoother transition into college-level coursework, making all learning of a piece.”

While most professors have paid relatively little attention to the Common Core so far, some in academe are beginning -- or wanting -- to play bigger roles in the dialogues and debates about the national standards.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently signed on to a consortium of dozens of colleges and universities interested in the Common Core, called Higher Education for Higher Standards. (The effort is being led by Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system. She's previously endorsed strong secondary education standards, saying that many of the system's community college students need to take remedial courses.) Debra Humphreys, vice president of public policy and public engagement for AAC&U, said many colleges and universities were supportive of the movement for national learning standards, but became less engaged when the effort “very quickly” pivoted to focus on standardized assessment of the implementation of those standards.

Nevertheless, she said, AAC&U wants to remain engaged in the rollout of the Common Core in the next several years, particularly through advocacy and education.

Margaret Ferguson, a professor of English at the University of California at Davis and president of the Modern Language Association, said she hadn’t read the report but objected to the idea that higher education writ large had excluded itself from the design of the Common Core standards. Rather, she said, the standards were drafted quickly by a small group of policy makers and academics who were largely professors of education -- not English or math -- on which the standards are based.

“We did write to the framers of the English language standards with a number of suggestions that still make sense – things that could be done with a little bit more coordination with what actual college teachers want in freshman English,” she said.

Ferguson said she has several standing concerns about the standards, including how they define literature, which she recently described in a column on the MLA Commons page. But MLA members continue to want to engage each other, their K-12 colleagues and policy-makers about the Common Core, she said. Several sessions on the standards are planned for the next MLA annual meeting, in January.

 

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