Standards Alone Not Enough to Prepare Students for College and Careers

Share this

In recent years, states have enthusiastically adopted standards that promote college and career readiness. A new report from Achieve, Closing the Expectations Gap 2012, reminds us once again that simply adopting more rigorous standards is not enough to adequately prepare all students for life after high school. Boosting student preparedness relies squarely on aligning the courses students are expected to take with the new standards, and providing crucial support for districts, teachers, schools — and students, particularly those who are farthest behind.

Achieve reports that all 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of college- and career-ready standards, either the Common Core State Standards or those that are state-specific. However, most states do not explicitly require students to complete a course of study aligned with those standards in order to graduate. Only 23 states and D.C., for example, currently require high school students to complete a course of study that includes four years of grade-level English and at least three years of math, including at least Algebra II or its equivalent. Another four states are considering whether to raise their high school course requirements. But even in those states that have already aligned course requirements with college- and career-ready standards, 14 allow students to opt out of some of the requirements (D.C. and the other nine states do not permit students to opt out).

Opt-out clauses are highly problematic. The data show that when earning a rigorous diploma is not required, low-income students and students of color were disproportionately opted out into lower level diplomas. For example, in 2011, just 12 percent of African-American graduates in Indiana earned an honors diploma, compared with 33 percent of white graduates. Conversely, African-American graduates in Indiana were more likely than white graduates to earn the lowest level diploma: a general diploma. Opt-out clauses and course requirements that are out of sync with college- and career-ready standards erroneously tell schools, students, and their families that not all students need high-level skills and knowledge to succeed after high school. Just as students need courses filled with content that corresponds to college- and career-ready standards, districts and schools also need a range of supports as they harmonize courses and instruction with the new standards. It is encouraging, however, that most states say they are providing those resources. Achieve found that 39 states are developing curricular and supplemental materials that districts and schools can use to help them align courses with higher standards. The same number of states report that they have developed a plan and calendar for providing professional development aligned with the new standards.

What remains unclear is whether state efforts are successfully filtering down to the district and school level. Some evidence suggests they are not. A study released last year found that most districts viewed a lack of support and guidance from their state as a challenge in implementing college- and career-ready standards. States must make sure their resources are being effectively disseminated, and are useful, to those on the ground.

College- and career-ready standards hold enormous promise for American education. Now, as adoption gives way to implementation, states, districts, and schools must work together to align instruction, curricula, and expectations for all schools and students. Higher standards implemented haphazardly or halfheartedly will still cheat students of the better outcomes they deserve.

— Allison Horowitz