Common Core Goes to College

Common Core Goes to College

In a new paper, the New America Foundation's Lindsey Tepe writes that Common Core assessments should be used in college admissions. We recently spoke with Tepe to learn more; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is Common Core, and how do you think its implementation will affect college admissions?

The Common Core State Standards are a set of state standards from kindergarten to twelfth grade that inform what content children need to master by the end of each grade, culminating in college and career readiness by the end of twelfth grade. Part of that would also be the Common Core assessments, which are being developed by the PARCC [Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia, and those assessments will track students' progress of mastery of those standards through each grade.

So, right now they may not affect college admissions. But these standards were developed with the idea that they are college- and career-readiness standards. Other states that have not adopted the Common Core State Standards have adopted different college- and career-readiness standards, and so what all of these standards have in common is that they have said that if students master these particular skills and this particular set of information that's embedded in them, that they'll be ready to go on to college. But that's very different than saying that students will be admitted to college.

College admissions are decided on an institutional basis, so each college and university has their own admissions criteria, some of which are open enrollment -- like community colleges -- and all you need is a high-school degree for the most part. Other selective-enrollment institutions use a combination of test scores, high-school GPA, and other factors, as they determine which students will be admitted.

Looking forward, however, if states have made a commitment to college- and career-readiness standards and assessments, it seems very silly that they would not also then say that if you meet your state's standard, that should then qualify as a minimum admissions standard to the lowest tier of four-year universities in that state.

Can these new assessments replace the ACT and SAT completely, then?

I would not say that they would replace, or that they necessarily should replace, the ACT or SAT. What I am saying, though, is that in many cases, universities have a minimum ACT and/or SAT score that you must meet to gain admission. Now, if a state has adopted the Common Core State Standards and they have adopted either the PARCC or the Smarter Balanced Assessment, and if you are scoring college-ready on those tests, I argue that it does not make sense for a student to have to both pass college-ready on PARCC or Smarter Balanced as well as college-ready on ACT or SAT in order to gain minimum admission to a university.

How do you think policy should be shaped to best facilitate the implementation of these standards?

We don't want this effort to stop at the college door. In K-12, curriculum decisions are increasingly being made at the state level, as opposed to the local level. There is a prescribed list of things that local school districts can purchase, for example. And at the federal level, with No Child Left Behind, you have a whole host of requirements geared toward quality of schools, and regardless of how you feel about that, states are really looking to improve quality in K-12 education and looking at outcome. In higher education, you just don't see that kind of scrutiny, and with the push toward college completion, with looking at graduation rates, what we're seeing is that higher education often just doesn't have the same level of attention paid to what they're actually doing for the students who are enrolled there.

What I think could really be done is to use the Common Core or the college- and career-readiness standards that the state has adopted to then look and see how students, being educated to a very high level up through twelfth grade, are doing in higher education, and start to put more accountability for outcomes in institutions of higher education.

In the paper, you say that Common Core standards and aligned assessments will cause "educational data [to] grow more comparable at the national level." Why do we need this?

When No Child Left Behind first passed, and states started implementing their own individual assessments, they were allowed to design their own tests, and they were allowed to set the bar for proficiency at whatever level they wanted. With these tests, you had all these states saying, "Our students are proficient; our students are doing really well." Yet, when they took a national assessment like NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Progress], you were suddenly seeing that those state tests were not measuring students very well. You had states like Louisiana that were testing in the 80th percentile for proficiency, and on the national assessment, it was more like 40 percent.

When you have similar students from different states being told very different things about how proficient they are in math and reading, we have a little bit of a problem, because students don't always stay in their same town through their whole career. They might move to a different state; they might attend a university in a neighboring state; they might have a job out of state. Even if they stay in the same location, they may have students from other states coming to their university, or they might have other students from across the country moving to compete for jobs in their same area.

So, having students receive different messages about their proficiency really starts to show up when they get to college, or when they get to their career, and suddenly they realize they don't have the same skills as the people they are working with, or that they were not receiving the best information about their level of preparedness. It's the same reason why, when students from other countries are looking to come to the United States to go to a university, they take the ACT or SAT. Institutions want to know based on their test, based on those tools, how students compare to the population that's already here.

Christina Breitbeil is a RealClearPolitics editorial intern.

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