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College Instructors Weigh in on Common Standards

A new study came out this week that tries to test a couple of the central college-readiness ideas behind the common standards. If this is the first you're hearing of it, take a look at my story, which links to the study.

Advocates and creators of the common standards have trumpeted their value in preparing students for college and good jobs. In fact, the states designing tests for the standards hope to have colleges use results for entry-level course-placement purposes. If you're going to do that, then what kids learn in a common-standards-driven classroom had better be the right stuff to enable them to skip remedial work in college. So a research group in Oregon set out to see if the standards are in line with what instructors in entry-level, credit-bearing courses expect.

By and large, the answer turned out to be yes. The instructors found the standards applicable to what they teach, and that mastering them would be pretty important to success in their courses.

But the variations of opinion about what is important make for some interesting reading. At 200-plus pages, with tons and tons of detail, this study is one you really have to paw through for a good while to get the sense of the layers of things going on. Lead researchers David Conley and Kathryn Drummond set up the study to allow instructors to rate not only the standards, but scores of more specific statements within the standards. That let them weigh in on things like the relative importance of using hyphens correctly versus interpreting figures of speech. (These statements come from within the language strand of the English/language arts standards. And let me tell you, it hurt my feelings to see how unimportant instructors consider proper hyphenation. Turn to page 34 of the study for this section.)

Before any of you get lost in the sheer volume and range of opinion in the study, however, keep a couple of things in mind.

One is that although the standards claim to prepare students for good jobs, and the study finds relatively strong ratings for them from instructors in career-oriented fields, there is still wide disagreement about what skills students need to be prepared for work. When it comes to sizing up the new standards as a career-readiness tool, don't expect clear answers. Or rather, expect answers that are even less definitive and consensus-driven than answers to questions about their use for college readiness.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are many skills that lots of folks consider crucial for success in college and work that are not included in the common standards (and, consequently, in the study). The study itself point this out in pretty sharp language, as do a number of the faculty reviewers.

The message? Don't think that students who master all the skills in the common standards are necessarily ready to soar in college, or in a good job. They need a far broader range of skills than that. And while the field has come some distance in articulating what some of those skills are, it hasn't come anywhere near that far in figuring out how to teach them or assess whether students have mastered them. (Last time I checked, teaching time-management and collaboration skills wasn't a part of most high school curricula. Nor were most schools testing students to gauge how persistent they are or how realistic their expectations of the future are.)

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