May 28 2012

A Cautionary Tale about National Academic Standards

Vicki E. Alger

There’s quite a flap over the latest re-jiggering of Florida’s academic standards. In years past, critics objected that higher standards under the state’s A+ Plan were just too tough. Turns out they were wrong. Time and time again schools and students rose to the challenge. (See “Florida’s Education Revolution,” pp. 3-4, 8.) This time around, the state education board blinked. As The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke explains:

In the most recent administration of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT)… students we’re asked to pay a little more attention to punctuation, grammar, and spelling in order to get a passing grade on the writing assessment. …This rather trivial change has set off a firestorm in the Sunshine State, which just released this year’s FCAT scores, graded under the more rigorous standards.

In 2011, a whopping 81 percent of Florida’s fourth graders scored a 4 or better on the writing portion of the FCAT. Just 27 percent of the youngsters scored proficient under the more rigorous standards this year. Eighth and tenth graders saw similar declines.

The dramatic drop prodded the state board of education to revise the cut scores downward, temporarily dropping the passing mark from 4 to 3 (out of a possible 6 points).

Why should the rest of us care how serious Florida may—or in this case, may not be—about comma splices and spelling? Burke explains why:

As Florida reels under the draconian requirements of – gasp! – punctuation awareness in a writing assessment, there’s a lesson to be learned for federal and state policymakers eager to adopt national standards and tests.

The backlash against Florida’s efforts to improve the rigor of the FCAT begs the question: what is the correct level of rigor for the 46 states that have adopted Common Core national standards that will not elicit similar reactions? We have yet to learn where the Common Core central planners will set their cut scores, or how they plan to go about setting passing marks on which both Alabama and Massachusetts will agree.

It is a cautionary tale for national standards proponents. Much of Florida’s success over the past decade can be attributed to the state continuously improving its standards and tests. With rigid national standards in place, that flexibility would be lost. And if mistakes are made in the standards, they’re here to stay.

For all the good intentions behind nationalizing Common Core standards, even staunch supporters cannot confidently claim that the politicized dumbing down of standards that happens in the states won’t happen with the feds running things. In fact, a strong case could be made that Fed ED would be worse. 

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