The year 2015 will carry special significance throughout much of the country — including Nevada — as schools complete the transition to the Common Core standards.
In a few short months, students statewide will take the Smarter Balanced test, a next-generation exam aligned to the new, tougher standards. This marks a critical milestone not just for the Common Core but, more importantly, for the decades-long journey to improve America’s schools.
More than 30 years ago, a prominent commission declared the United States to be “a nation at risk” because of the “rising tide of mediocrity” sweeping our education system. Since then, policymakers and educators have put in place a series of reforms; some of these have worked better than others, but our progress is undeniable. Low-performing, low-income and minority children are reading and doing math two to three grade levels higher than they were in the 1990s, in large part because of the move toward standards, testing and accountability. Our K-12 educators and those who lead them should be proud of those hard-won gains.
Unfortunately, this progress has not reached nearly far enough. Students at the middle and top of the performance spectrum have mostly flat-lined in recent decades. And in the past few years, even our lowest-performing students have plateaued. That’s why, in 2010, dozens of states, Nevada included, elected to take the next step on the reform journey by adopting more rigorous, college-and-career-ready standards and assessments for their public schools. Rather than hold schools accountable just for getting students over a low bar, indicating minimal literacy and numeracy, Nevada now expects its schools to help all of their pupils make progress toward challenging standards connected with student success — meaning a clear path after high school to college or a good-paying job.
Most states’ old assessments told us very little about what students had learned because they were too easy. And since they often took months to return results to teachers and parents, the information gleaned from the old assessments was often out of date and of little use. Educators throughout the Silver State have spent the past four years preparing for the new standards and assessments by developing local curricula, adopting new textbooks and prepping themselves to teach challenging material. And they stand ready to use these new tools to deliver a better, more customized education for every child.
Educators also understand, however, that devising strategies to clear this higher bar will take time and patience. In the short term, because the expectations are higher and better aligned with what students actually need to know to get into college or get a good job, it is likely that fewer students will be deemed “proficient” than under the old system.
Unfortunately, patience is not always a virtue that politicians possess, and some already want to backpedal before students even get a chance to rise to the challenge of these tougher exams. It’s much easier, after all, to set expectations low and then celebrate “success” when the vast majority of students meet or exceed those expectations.
While this might be a good deal for politicians seeking re-election, students are the ones who suffer.
To be sure, these changes are not easy, but we hope Nevada will not turn back now, and will continue on a path to providing high, measurable goals for all students.
The state’s educators and students have worked too hard, for too long, to climb the mountain to higher expectations to turn around just as the summit comes into view.
Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where Michael Brickman is national policy director.