Orange County Register, March 9, 2010
Despite the recent news that California wasn’t chosen by the Obama administration as a finalist state for the $4 billion Race to the Top education-funding program, with its required adherence to new national standards in English and math, the state will still be forced to dance to the president’s nationalizing tune.
President Barack Obama is using a double hammer against the states to adopt the common, i.e. national, standards being developed by the National Governors Association and the nation’s chief state school officers. First, under RTTT, states had to agree to adopt the national standards if they wanted to compete for these funds. While only a handful of states were chosen as RTTT finalists, states that applied to compete, including California and most others, had to commit to the national standards.
Second, President Obama also wants states to adopt the national English and math standards as a condition to receive their annual federal Title I funds aimed at disadvantaged students. In the current budget year, California is slated to receive $2 billion in Title I funds augmented by $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money.
Although the president claims that all this financial arm-twisting will result in better education for students, the actual outcome could be the opposite.
A new joint study by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute and San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute entitled “Why Race to the Middle?” compares the draft national standards that have been made public with the rigorous state standards in Massachusetts and California. In mathematics, the study notes that the draft college- and career-readiness math standards fail to cover large areas of geometry and algebra 2 that are covered under California’s math standards. Also, the draft K-12 math standards propose to teach significantly fewer math topics in many grades than in California and Massachusetts.
Weakening standards in strong-standard states would also water down the tests in those states. State tests in places like California and Massachusetts are aligned to their rigorous standards. If such states must accept new weaker national standards, the tests aligned to those standards would also be weakened. Student test scores may go up, but that won’t necessarily mean that learning has improved.
The requirement of proficiency may also be weakened. Obama education officials indicate the administration will jettison the requirement, under the No Child Left Behind law, that all children score at the proficient level in English and math on state tests by 2014. Many states aren’t close to meeting this goal.
In California, despite some improvement in recent years, half of students in grades two through 11 scored below proficient in English in 2009. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls the proficiency-for-everyone objective utopian and says it should be dropped. Tossing out the proficiency requirement, however, worries many, including some of the president’s liberal-leaning supporters.
The Boston Globe warns that “backing away from the goal that all students achieve proficiency on their state exams is a mistake in a field where nothing short of high-stakes testing grabs the attention of students, parents, teachers, and school administrators.”
The Obama administration says that it will replace the proficiency requirement with an emphasis on college and career readiness. However, regarding the common college- and career-readiness standards, the PI/PRI study observes that those standards “are set at a level that is far below the admission requirements of almost all state colleges and universities in this country.”
It’s clear that Obama favors increased federal control, dumbed-down standards for high-standard states, weakened tests and undermined proficiency benchmarks. That’s a prescription for disaster.