What Happened to the American Diploma Project? A Common Core Mystery

Read like a detective.

Joy Resmovits recent Huffington Post piece How The Common Core Became Education’s Biggest Bogeyman lays out an origin story for the standards, starting with:

Terry Holliday had a problem. That’s what the Kentucky schools chief thought as he sat in an auditorium filled with governors and state school leaders in the Chicago Airport Hilton one day in April 2009. His legislature had told him he needed to write new learning standards that ensured students were more prepared for higher education or careers — a process that could cost as much as $3 to $5 million per subject — but his budget had been slashed. How could he possibly satisfy the law?

If only Holliday’s predecessors had foreseen this situation by becoming involved in an ongoing multi-state effort to create a new generation of standards aligned to carefully researched outcomes for college and workplace readiness!

Oh, wait. in fact, Kentucky was one of the first five states to join Achieve’s American Diploma Project (ADP), which was launched in 2001 with a mission to “determine the prerequisite English and mathematics knowledge and skills required for success in entry-level, credit-bearing courses in English, mathematics, the sciences, and the humanities.” That is, exactly what Resmovitz says Holliday was lacking in 2009.

By 2004, ADP had released Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts delineating college and career ready graduation benchmarks. In 2008, Achieve and ADP released backward-mapped grade level standards in English and Math. Holliday already had everything he needed. Why did he turn to the Common Core standards?

In their influential December 2008 report Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-class Education, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc. had laid out their next steps:

To upgrade state standards, leaders will be able to leverage the Common State Standards Initiative, an upcoming joint project of NGA, CCSSO, Achieve, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy. The initiative will enable all states to adopt coherent and rigorous standards in K-12 math, reading, and language arts that are fully aligned with college and career expectations and also internationally benchmarked against leading nations. Achieve is developing an important tool for the initiative: a set of voluntary, globally competitive reference standards based on the existing American Diploma Project (ADP) framework. Because of how it was originally developed, the ADP framework already reflects the skills necessary to succeed in college and in well-paying jobs in today’s labor market. Achieve is now working to further calibrate the framework to reflect international expectations as well as recent research on college and career readiness.

Thus, Kentucky’s decision to adopt the yet unwritten Common Core standards, made formal in a Memorandum of Understanding signed May 7, 2009, mere weeks after the meeting Resmovitz describes above, makes sense if we see it as simply an effort to “further calibrate” an ongoing standards-writing process that Kentucky had embraced for the past 8 years.

However, as more details trickle out and a fuller picture of the actual process of developing the Common Core standards comes into view, it is clear that at some point NGA, CCSSO and Achieve decided not to base the Common Core standards on ADP, but to turn the process over primarily to David Coleman and his circle and allow them to start from scratch.

This move is simply inexplicable. As Achieve notes, the ADP Network included 35 states which educated 85% of all US public school students. This was a broad consensus already in place. I have not been able to find a single reformer-based criticism of any facet of the ADP end-of-high school English Benchmarks. I have no idea whatsoever why ADP was suddenly found to be wanting.

As a former English teacher, my analysis is focused on the English/Language Arts side of the standards. While would not call myself a fan of the ADP, I regard it as a consistent, fully developed, well documented articulation of one vision of what students should learn and be able to do by the end of high school. It clearly and explicitly builds on everything learned by the states — particularly Massachusetts — after 20 years or so of standards writing, implementation and revision. It is the exemplary prototype of the American style of standards writing, circa 2004.

To be clear, the stated goals of the ADP were the same as the goals of the Common Core. It was the same organizations, apparently the same people.

So… what happened? Who knows?

The results are plain enough. The ADP and Common Core are similar. You can make an apples to apples comparison between the two. Many standards are carried over almost verbatim, but to my reading the ADP is superior in every important dimension. I could go on at great length, but here are some examples:

The basic underpinning of “College and Workplace Readiness,” including defining “workplace tasks,” is more fully developed in the ADP than Common Core’s “College and Career Readiness,” which only makes perfunctory gestures towards the workplace. Throughout the ADP benchmarks, specific, researched workplace tasks and posts-secondary assignments are cited to support individual standards, this level of evidence is not provided in the Common Core standards.

While the Common Core standards are often said to privilege argument, the ADP English benchmarks are stronger in this area, including a set of nine standards under the heading “Logic” covering a reasonably complete scope of rhetorical skills and knowledge, including explicit references to understanding logical fallacies, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the use of persuasive strategies in student writing. The Common Core explicitly addresses none of those essential facets of rhetoric, with only one anchor standard requiring students to analyze arguments, and one requiring students to write them.

ADP Literature standard H3 calls for students to:

Interpret significant works from various forms of literature: poetry, novel, biography, short story, essay and dramatic literature; use understanding of genre characteristics to make deeper and subtler interpretations of the meaning of the text.

The Common Core removes interpretation, the traditional capstone of literary study in the high school classroom, and omits genre analysis, one of the key analytical tools of the Language Arts classroom. These changes set the Common Core apart from not only the ADP, but from the curricular outcomes and standards of every high performing state, province or country. This “shift” is rarely mentioned and has never been explained publicly.

ADP Writing standard C10 calls for students to:

Produce work-related texts (for example, memos, e-mails, correspondence, project plans, work orders, proposals, bios)…

Even if one does not think such texts — whose application is by no means limited to “work”— should be the center of the English curriculum, for Common Core to omit them entirely from standards that claim to address “career readiness” is malpractice, pure and simple, and again, without precedent in the standards of high performing states, provinces and countries.

The Common Core does not achieve its goal of “fewer” standards. The ADP English graduation benchmarks describe a more complete and detailed set of essential skills and knowledge with 9 fewer standards than the Common Core English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects for 11th and 12th grade.

I encourage you to peruse Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts yourself. It is rather human-readable, as such things go.

To be fair, the grade level ADP English and Communications Benchmarks do explode into a welter of busily cross-referenced detail. This does not, however, show that the ADP college and workplace readiness benchmarks in English were not a viable starting point for the Common Core. Slightly tightening the graduation benchmarks, substantially streamlining the grade level standards, extending them down to kindergarten, undertaking real international benchmarking, writing new supporting material on the selection of a range of texts, and gathering and responding to sufficient public feedback would have made a good year’s work for Coleman, Pimentel and their teams, with a good chance of actually creating a highly polished, thoroughly documented and fully elaborated end product.

If the Common Core ELA/Literacy standards had been directly based on the ADP Benchmarks, it would not have eliminated all controversy from the project. Many people would oppose anything they saw as an attempt to impose national standards or curriculum. However, ADP’s history tracing back to 2001 and broad support among states prior to the Obama administration (and the Gates Foundation’s investment) would strengthen the argument that the standards were truly state led. The concern that the Common Core represents an untested experiment would be blunted by a more clear, direct and explicit connection to existing high quality standards used by high performing states, particularly Massachusetts, and real international benchmarking. A number of persistent, authoritative, and vocal critics of the quality of the Common Core ELA/Literacy standards, such as Sandra Stotsky, would probably instead be supporters. My view would be “Meh,” rather than “What were they thinking?”

What Common Core advocates have gained, or think they have gained, by discarding the ADP, I do not know. It is a mystery, and the source of many conspiracy theories.