RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Over the next school year, expect to hear a lot about something called the Common Core. That's the name given to a new set of national education standards in math and English language arts that will take effect in most states next year. This move toward a single set of standards has been embraced by politicians from both sides of the aisle and by educators. To explain why, NPR's Cory Turner has the story of what came before the Common Core.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: A mess, that's what came before. The education landscape was a cacophony of state standards. A fourth grader in Arkansas could have appeared proficient in reading by his state's standards, but by the standards of another state, say Massachusetts, not even close.
ARNE DUNCAN: For far too long our school systems actually lied to children and to families and to communities.
TURNER: That's Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a recent speech, and he says what made those lies possible was the one thing most of these state standards had in common: They were low.
DUNCAN: Low standards of the equivalent of setting up for a track and field event with hurdles set only a foot high.
TURNER: So what's a foot high? Well here's an example, in 2009, 90 percent of fourth graders in Tennessee met their state's proficiency standard for reading. Ninety percent. That's a great number. Well, then comes the NAEP test. That's the National Assessment of Educational Progress and it's a federal test that also evaluates student reading. So guess how many Tennessee fourth graders scored proficient on this federal test? Ninety percent? Try 28 percent.
PHILIP BREDESEN: You can't explain that kind of difference, by anything other than the standards we were measuring them against were just vastly softer and vastly easier.
TURNER: Democrat Philip Bredesen was then governor of Tennessee and he says his state standards had been low for years and Tennessee wasn't alone.
KATHLEEN PORTER-MAGEE: Often more than half of the states earned D's and F's, almost failing grades, from our experts.
TURNER: That's Kathleen Porter-Magee. She studies education policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute which has long graded state benchmarks.
PORTER-MAGEE: There were so many state standards that were vague to the point of meaninglessness, you know, that just did not articulate the content that students needed to learn and the skills they need to master to be ready for college and beyond.
TURNER: And it gets worse. According to a big report from the Education Department, between 2005 and 2007, some 15 states actually lowered their proficiency standards in reading or math. Why? Well, lots of reasons, but one big one, the federal government.
MARK SCHNEIDER: I think fundamentally, the problem was the law was set up badly.
TURNER: That's Mark Schneider with the American Institutes for Research. And the law is No Child Left Behind.
SCHNEIDER: It mandated that students at all schools be proficient, but allowed states to set their proficiency standards.
TURNER: Once a top official at the Education Department, Schneider commissioned that big report that showed states gaming the system by dropping their standards.
SCHNEIDER: We suspected that states had set their proficiency standards relatively low against NAEP, but I don't think anybody anticipated exactly how low they were. It really was shocking.
TURNER: Now, under the more rigorous Common Core standards, it will be harder for states to hide their failing schools. But what has Core watchers nervous is not that states will cheat, but, as Mark Schneider says, that the first round of student scores in 2015, especially from our biggest cities, will be honest.
SCHNEIDER: The numbers are really going to be appallingly bad.
TURNER: So bad they could shock parents and strike fear into politicians. Again, former Tennessee Governor Philip Bredesen.
BREDESEN: The scores are gonna look like they're falling, and they're not. They're just being tested more honestly, and we've got to stay the course.
TURNER: Which won't be easy if the message from these new tests is, clearly, the kids are not all right. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.