Higher Standards for Higher Achievement

The average adult in the United States reads a few thousand words every day—encompassing everything from street signs to text messages to news headlines. But those thousands of words amount to nothing without comprehension and critical reading skills, which enable us make sense of the myriad words we encounter.

These skills of sense-making and critical thinking are at the heart of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts. The standards are based on the notion that, to be ready for college and careers, students should be able to understand complex texts, use academic vocabulary, cite evidence from texts to back up their analyses and claims, and read to build knowledge about the world around them.

While some have linked recent dips in American students’ scores on international literacy tests with the Common Core, teachers know firsthand that the standards are working for their students. Six years after they were introduced, the standards are in place in more than 40 states, and state test results in places like Colorado, Mississippi and New Jersey show that students are making progress. Speaking to the gains in test scores in Kentucky, teacher Dr. Meka Wilhoit Barry noted that, “While a few percentage points may seem small, it translates to thousands more students operating on grade level. That’s significant progress!”

Across the country, teachers are seeing measurable, positive changes in their students’ literacy skills. Their students are reading deeply across content areas. They are able to speak eloquently and write for a variety of purposes. They know how to think critically about the thousands of words they take in—and about what those words mean for the world they’re growing up in.

As one middle school teacher in Ohio puts it, “The standards have given my students both the push and the freedom to explore connections between reading and their daily lives.” For example, her seventh-grade students recently read a speech by prominent suffragist Lucy Stone and were able to discuss how specific sentences related to issues of gender equality in modern society.

Another educator from Kentucky says that the standards have created opportunities for her to challenge her students with exciting, complex texts that connect to their interests. And she has found that her students’ literary analysis essays “prove they are mastering high school-level reading and writing skills”—even though they’re still in middle school.

Students across the globe are gaining ground in literacy—which is a good thing. That does not mean that U.S. students are slipping or that higher standards aren’t working. The experience of teachers across the country shows that, in fact, our students are reading more deeply, thinking more critically, and making progress. With the foundational skills embedded in the Common Core and similar high standards, our children are becoming equipped to read and understand in new ways—and to navigate and change the world where they encounter those thousands of words each day.


About the Author

Katrina Boone is the Director of Educators for High Standards.