All Students Deserve High Academic Expectations

As states implement assessments aligned to Common Core State Standards, officials have struggled to balance rigor with fairness, a Hechinger Report article notes.

“Some of the benchmarks are just way above the children’s heads; I honestly don’t think their brains are ready for some of the standards,” suggests Claudia Pinheiro, a fourth-grade teacher in New Jersey. “A lot of my students don’t have the background knowledge to deal with, for example, inference questions.”

Yolanda Méndez, the principal at Pinheiro’s school, indicates the assessments aligned to Common Core State Standards are especially troublesome for English language learners. Language barriers, Méndez says, create “a lot of confusion in the brain and have a big impact on the quality of many students’ reading and writing.”

The article highlights the delicate task of balancing academic rigor, and measurement of students’ progress against those expectations, while ensuring age-appropriateness. That requires constant evaluation by test developers and state and local educators, and states have done a good job of striking the right balance.

However, the suggestion that some students simply can’t achieve to high levels, and therefore states should lower the bar for them (or for all students), is misguided. Every student deserves to be held to high classroom expectations that fully prepare them for college or a career.

As the article acknowledges, the Common Core has raised classroom expectations for students. Pinheiro points out, “Especially in literacy, I now know exactly what [her kids] need to know at grade level, and this really helps my lesson planning.”

Overwhelmingly, educators from across the country share Pinheiro’s sentiments. A recent study by the Council of Chief State School Officers, A Path of Progress, notes:

“Many [educators] reported that the field at first felt overwhelmed by the work needed to implement the new standards, but that satisfaction among administrators and teachers grew as instruction began to evolve… Overall, those interviewed for this project said the benefit to student learning that will emerge from the new college- and career-ready standards far outweighs the challenges they faced.”

Most states have also implemented student assessments aligned to the rigor of the Common Core. “States are finally measuring to levels that reflect what students need to know and be able to do to succeed in college or a career,” Karen Nussle wrote last fall. “For parents and educators, that should come as a welcome change. It means they are finally receiving accurate information about how well their kids are really doing.”

Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reiterates the importance of accurate assessments. “Parents should resist the siren song of those who want to use this moment of truth to attack the Common Core or the associated tests. They may not be perfect, but they are finally giving parents, educators and taxpayers an honest assessment of how our students are doing.”

Like any policy, ensuring student assessments remain appropriately challenging and accommodating to learners requires continual evaluation and fine tuning. And states have done a good job of making those adjustments. In New York, for example, officials shortened the length of exams, gave students more time to complete them and put a moratorium on tying results to teacher evaluations.

“For the sake of our children, we cannot go back,” Dr. Antipas Harris wrote earlier this year. “Unless we are willing to hold all students to rigorous expectations, and ensure they have the support they need to meet them, we will continue to fall short of the collective call to treat all God’s children with proper support.”