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States Compared to International Standards

Phillips and AIR correctly argue that weak state standards serve to create a false sense of security about state educational outcomes.  In most states, school outcomes are distressingly weak compared to national and international standards.  In the past, the U. S. led international rankings. In recent decades, however, other countries have moved ahead despite American school reforms.

Whether these facts argue for the nationwide adoption of the Common Core, however, is another issue.   The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is reasonably rigorous and has for decades served as a de facto national standard.  In fact, the discrepancies between state and international benchmarks found by AIR largely parallel the discrepancies between state reports and the NAEP.  State policymakers only need to review this evidence to learn whether their state standards should be strengthened.

Improved outcomes, however, will require leadership and increased consumer awareness.

International Benchmarking
State and National Education Performance Standards

Gary W. Phillips
American Institutes of Research
September 2014

Highlights from the Executive Summary:

  • The overall finding in the study is that there is considerable variance in state performance standards, exposing a large gap in expectations between the states with the highest standards and the states with the lowest standards. Although this gap in expectations is large, many policymakers may not be aware of just how large it is.
  • These results help explain why the United States does poorly in international comparisons. Many states think they have high standards and are doing well, and feel no urgency to improve because almost all their students are proficient.
  • The lack of transparency among state performance standards leads to a kind of policy jabberwocky: the word proficiency means whatever one wants it to mean. This misleads the public, because low standards can be used to artificially rack up high numbers of “proficient” students.
  • This looks good for federal reporting requirements, but it denies students the opportunity to learn college and career readiness skills. If we believe almost all students are already proficient, what is the motivation to teach them higher-level skills? This may be the main reason why less than 40 percent of 12th grade students are academically prepared for college. Furthermore, over a third of students enrolled in college need remedial help. They thought that they were college ready because they passed their high school graduation test, but they were not.