From Educ Week

Focus on: Curriculum
Academics Find Common Standards Fit for College
But Academics Maintain Some Skills Are Missing
By Catherine Gewertz

Instructors of entry-level college courses consider the common 
standards in mathematics and English/language arts good reflections 
of the skills students must master to be successful in courses in a 
range of disciplines, according to a survey released last week.

The study, "Reaching the Goal," aims to verify a key premise of the 
academic standards that have been adopted by all but five states: 
that they prepare students for college by defining the skills and 
knowledge that are crucial to success in entry-level coursework. 
Although college instructors served on the panels that crafted the 
standards, the new survey is believed to be the only study to test 
that premise by putting the question directly to higher-education 
faculty members.

"It suggests strong support for the validity of the common-core 
standards, in terms of their applicability to college courses and 
their importance, and the appropriate level of challenge for students 
to be successful," said Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of 
education at Stanford University who focuses on college-readiness 
issues and serves on the board of directors of the research group 
that produced the report. "Nobody has cross-checked it with the 
actual people who teach these courses, until now."

Rating the Common Core

Researchers asked college instructors whether the common standards in 
English/language arts and mathematics are applicable to the 
entry-level courses they teach. Instructors who found them applicable 
then rated the standards, and substandards, on a scale of 1 to 4, 
from least important to most important for students to master in 
order to succeed in the course. Survey participants rated a total of 
113 standards and substandards in English/language arts and 200 in 
SOURCE: Educational Policy Improvement Center

In conducting the study, a team led by David T. Conley, the chief 
executive officer of the Educational Policy Improvement Center, in 
Eugene, Ore., posed two types of questions to the instructors of 
1,897 courses at 944 two- and four-year colleges across the country.

First, the "applicability" question: Do the high school standards 
reflect material that will be covered or reviewed, or considered a 
prerequisite, in your course?

If instructors answered yes, they went on to the "importance" 
questions, rating on a scale of 1 to 4 how crucial mastery of each 
broad "strand" or "conceptual category" of standards-and scores of 
standards and substatements within them-is to success in their 
Across Disciplines

The instructors in the study come not just from the math and 
English/language arts disciplines. They teach courses in other 
general education areas such as science and social studies, as well 
as courses often associated with career pathways in health care, 
computer technology, and business management. All were asked to 
review both the math and English/language arts standards, on the 
theory that many skills articulated there were meant to cut across 
the disciplines.

Standards in English/language arts earned strong ratings for 
importance, with every area except one rated between 3 and 3.3. The 
math standards received somewhat lower ratings, mostly between 2.6 
and 3, a difference that might be attributable, Mr. Conley said, to 
their greater degree of specialization.

Digging deeper into the results yields variations that shed light on 
the importance instructors from the different disciplines place on 
the 300-plus ideas they evaluated. Those variations, Mr. Conley said, 
can inform how curriculum is designed for the standards and how they 
are taught and tested.

"When we start thinking about what to teach and what to test, the 
variations become far more important than the generalizations," said 
Mr. Conley. Those variations suggest that even students who don't 
master every standard can excel in college, he said.

"Are you better off with a strong core of knowledge? Of course," Mr. 
Conley said. "The more you know, the more options you have in 
college. But even if you don't master all the standards, you still 
have good options."

The math standards to earn the highest and most interdisciplinary 
applicability ratings were those in the "mathematical practices," 
which include skills such as applying math knowledge to everyday 
problems. Even some English/language arts instructors found those 
standards relevant to their courses, with two in 10 giving the 
thumbs-up. Six in 10 of those in social science did so as well, along 
with three-quarters or more of those in the other disciplines.

In English/language arts, the speaking and listening skills were the 
ones seen as the most highly applicable by instructors across the 
disciplines. Standards in literary reading got somewhat lower 
applicability ratings. But those focusing on informational reading 
were seen as highly relevant. Instructors from non-English/language 
arts courses, in particular, saw the standards for reading in 
specific disciplines, such as science and social studies, as 
applicable to their courses.
Prioritizing Skills

When it came to rating the importance of the standards and statements 
within the standards, some were seen as far more important than 

Within the speaking and listening standards, for instance, 
instructors said it was very important for students to be able to 
"come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material 
under study [and] explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to 
evidence from texts and other research ... to stimulate a thoughtful, 
well-reasoned exchange of ideas." They placed less value on the 
ability to "evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of 
evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among 
ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used."

Within math practices, raters placed the most value on "making sense 
of problems and persevering in solving them" and the least on 
"looking for and expressing regularity in repeated reasoning," though 
both still received above-average-importance ratings. Within the 
geometry standard, instructors placed more importance on using volume 
formulas to solve problems than on the ability to prove that all 
circles are similar.

The appraisals of the math standards by instructors in varied fields 
are "bound to raise the question" of how much math students need to 
succeed in various college majors and fields of work, a question that 
has been debated by experts.

"Many subjects don't require math beyond Algebra 2," said Mr. Kirst 
of Stanford. "This [study] expands the dialogue and perspective on 
that to many other teachers. Math teachers want everybody to know a 
lot of math, but they're not the ones that have a handle on what is 
needed in all these other fields."

Another central idea of the standards-that they are rigorous enough 
to prepare students for college-was explored in an optional question. 
Ninety-six percent of the responding instructors agreed that the 
standards were at a level of rigor sufficient for preparation for 
their courses.

But even as the study buttressed key ideas about the standards' 
reflection of college readiness, some of its strongest language was 
reserved for areas they do not cover. Mr. Conley, widely known for 
his work detailing strategies and habits of mind that are important 
for success in college, such as persistence and study skills, 
cautioned against viewing the standards as a complete recipe for 
college preparation.

"Defining a set of standards as 'college and career ready' that 
overlook ... dimensions beyond content knowledge will result in 
assuming that students who have achieved a particular score on the 
common assessments [of the standards] are fully ready for college and 
career studies when, in fact, they may possess only a subset of the 
knowledge and skills, strategies and techniques necessary to be fully 
ready for postsecondary success," he and his co-authors write in the 

Donna Ekal, the associate provost for undergraduate studies at the 
University of Texas at El Paso, agreed that students' mastery of 
academic standards is a misleading gauge of their readiness for 
college or work. It's important to know what college instructors 
consider crucial to success in their courses, she said, but 
researchers should also ask students what skills proved pivotal to 
their college success.

"If you asked students, they would certainly say content is 
important, but we hear an awful lot, too, about time management and 
about unrealistic expectations. Many students expect college to be 
like a 13th year of high school," said Ms. Ekal, whose 23,000-student 
campus has worked for 20 years with local school districts, city 
officials, and the community college to align K-12 work with college.

"I think it would be especially important to ask the students that 
did well in high school and came to college and weren't so 
successful, what was the disconnect?"

Creating assessments that are informed by college instructors' views 
involves an inherent "tension" in ensuring that the tests cover what 
is important to learn in high school, without shortchanging the more 
narrowly focused math and literacy skills that meet higher 
education's definition of what's required for success in entry-level, 
credit-bearing courses, said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, 
a Washington-based group that has worked with colleges and K-12 to 
shape academic expectations and tests for states in its American 
Diploma Project network.

A key tenet of the common assessments, which two groups of states are 
designing for the common standards, is that colleges could support 
their use for course-placement decisions. Achieve is a 
project-management partner of one of those two state consortia, the 
Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or 

Achieve's research showed that college-placement tests in math tend 
to focus heavily on algebra, since that is often the first 
credit-bearing course in college, Mr. Cohen said. Consequently, a 
high school math test designed for the standards will have to focus 
sufficiently on algebra to predict success in first-year, 
credit-bearing courses, but also must include other areas of math in 
the standards, he said. Number and quantity, for instance, was an 
area of math that received as high an applicability rating from the 
college instructors in the study as algebra did. Statistics and 
probability was close behind.
Guidance for Policymakers

As school districts and states work to reshape curricula and tests to 
reflect the common standards, college instructors' views of the 
relative importance of the standards-and more narrowly focused goals 
within each standard-can help them prioritize, Mr. Kirst said.

"This is very useful for state policymakers like me," said Mr. Kirst, 
the president of the California state board of education. "We can't 
cover all the standards in the common core equally. We cannot test 
all of them equally. As you look through what people think is more or 
less important, it gives you some guidance as to what may be the 
things you have to teach and assess in depth versus those you assess 
in less depth or not at all."

Coverage of "deeper learning" that will prepare students with the 
skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is 
supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett 
Foundation, at

Vol. 31, Issue 02, Pages 1,12-13


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