Not Meeting Standards: A Warning Light, Not A Death Sentence

Last week, I complained that Eva Moskowitz and other reformers weren’t being fair when they described schools as “persistently failing” because they didn’t get many of their students to the ambitious levels built into the Common Core. This is how I concluded:

The move to higher standards means that we need to recalibrate our rhetoric and, more importantly, our approach to school accountability. In the low-standards days, it was perfectly legitimate to call out schools that couldn’t get all or most of their students to minimal levels of literacy and numeracy. It simply doesn’t work to similarly defame schools that don’t get all of their students “on track for college and career.” It’s a much higher bar and a much longer road.

But reform critics aren’t any better when it comes to playing games with the new standards. Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss, for example, continue to peddle the notion that the Common Core is developmentally inappropriate because it expects all students to be able to read simple passages by the end of kindergarten. Perhaps without knowing it, they’re making the same mistake as Moskowitz and others: misunderstanding the standards’ aspirational nature.

The core problem is the assumption that, by simply setting standards, policymakers expect “all students” to meet them. That might have been the case in the past, when we set the standards bar at an extremely low level—and yes, it was signaled by NCLB’s crazy declaration that all children would be “proficient” by 2014. But it certainly should not be the case now, or for the foreseeable future.

Here’s what the Common Core is designed to communicate: If your children are meeting the standards, it means they are believed to be on track for college and career readiness by the end of high school—real readiness, the kind that doesn’t require remediation on campus. If they aren’t meeting the standards, it means that they are off track. That doesn’t mean they are “failing,” or even “below average.” But it does mean they need to accelerate their progress if they are likely to be able to take bona fide college courses upon entry or have the best possible shot at a well-paying job.

It’s like learning that your child’s body mass index (BMI) is above the healthy range. If you want him or her to have a long and healthy life, you need to work at bringing it down over time in a proven and safe way. (If below the healthy range, of course, that means bringing it up, and not just with ice cream.)

The BMI isn’t perfect. It doesn’t measure everything that is important about health, or even healthy weight. And it is adjusted over time as researchers learn more. Nor would anyone in public health expect all American kids to attain a BMI in the healthy range anytime soon, if ever. But we do hope to see the population moving in that direction—and there’s ample cause for concern when (as today) so many are moving in the opposite direction.

So to Ravitch and Strauss I say: Please stop claiming that the standards expect “all” students to read by the end of kindergarten. It’s wrong. The standards are simply meant to indicate to parents and educators that kids are “off track” if they haven’t met that milestone yet. It’s a warning light, not a death sentence. Thankfully, kindergartners have plenty of time to catch up. Let’s focus on smart instructional strategies to help them get there.

– Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on Common Core Watch.

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