04/27/2011 02:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2011

Time to Raise the Bar

The data that many states publish about how their students are doing in math and science just don't add up. While most states report that the majority of their students are proficient in math, for example, other data tell a very different story. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which sets a consistent bar for students in all states, rates only 38 percent of 4th graders and 33 percent of 8th graders proficient or advanced in math. And NAEP scores are not where they need to be if American students are to keep pace with their peers worldwide.

Last week, a group of leading chief executives sent letters to all 50 governors and the D.C. mayor urging them to tell the difficult truth about student performance in their states. They also sent another message: We've got your back.

Those CEOs are members of Change the Equation (CTEq), a coalition of more than 110 chief executives who are dedicated to boosting student achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Each letter to a governor came with a brief "Vital Signs" report on the condition of math and science learning in that governor's state. The reports offer real cause for concern. For example, the data show that many 4th and 8th graders seldom carry out or write about science projects, that many math teachers lack an undergraduate major or minor in math, that most states set low passing scores on content licensure tests for elementary teachers, and that few students take challenging Advanced Placement tests or make it through college.

CEOs are also encouraged by good news. NAEP math scores have risen over the past 15 years. Some states, like Massachusetts and Missouri, have maintained high expectations for students. Others, like Michigan, New York, Oregon and Tennessee, have been raising the passing scores on their state math tests. And now 43 states have joined forces to create a common set of clear and demanding academic content standards in English and math. All of those states have also joined consortia to create tests that align with those standards. This progress is a testament to the hard work and courage of educators and state leaders across the country. Similar work is underway in science.

But the CEOs recognize that there could be trouble ahead. If states follow through on strong standards and tests that set a high bar, then they can expect student pass rates to drop suddenly. That could lead to outside pressure to back down. CEOs say they will stand by state leaders as they hold the line on standards.

They will also stand by state leaders as those leaders do the hard work of giving schools the tools they need to help students clear a higher bar. After all, high expectations are a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for preparing students to meet the demands of a global age. If teachers don't get the training, support and materials they need to teach to the high standards, then higher standards will put us on a road to nowhere.

Even as they keep an eye on states, CTEq CEOs will also hold themselves to account. Together, our companies spend more than half a billion dollars a year on STEM learning opportunities for teachers and PreK-12 children. Our CEOs recognize that some of this money is not having much of an impact, so they will judge their investments against a set of principles for effective philanthropy. They will also use the Vital Signs reports to see where their philanthropy and advocacy for STEM learning can have the greatest impact.

Change the Equation will continue supporting states in the years ahead. Going forward, we will release a second, more robust set of Vital Signs reports with the most complete state-by-state data ever assembled on STEM learning. The reports will further extend our knowledge of where states are making gains, where they have work to do, and how they can prepare many more students to thrive in a global economy. Real improvement depends on this kind of honest accounting.

Much progress has been made across the country, but such progress will be fragile indeed if we do not stiffen our spines against the temptation to lower the bar.