It's Time to Stop Lying to Students and Parents and Raise Our Educational Standards

I recently told the Arizona Commerce Authority that if I was choosing a site for Intel to build a new facility, Arizona wouldn't even make my Top 10 list.

Even though Intel employs 9,700 people in its semiconductor manufacturing and research and development facilities in Arizona, the condition of K -12 education in the state, particularly in science and math (STEM), makes me believe that it would be foolish to invest another dime in the state. Why would anyone want to build in a place where it will be unable to find enough qualified employees?

Not surprisingly, my comments created controversy but it's time someone told the truth. State educational systems are cooking their books and lying to kids and parents. Specifically, they are rigging educational standards, setting the bar for "proficiency" far too low and creating a dishonestly rosy picture of American schools. By doing so, states are torpedoing the future of America's students and American business.

Change the Equation, a national nonprofit partnership of 111 CEOs that I chair, recently released its first Vital Signs report, a state-by-state examination of the state of STEM education. What the report reveals should alarm elected officials, policymakers, students and parents across the country.

According to the state test in Arizona, 74 percent of the state's fourth graders are proficient in math. When the state's results were assessed by the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which track international assessments, the proficiency numbers plunged, with only 28 percent of Arizona's fourth graders meeting standards.

This is not just about Arizona. In California, the state deemed that 66 percent of fourth graders were proficient in math. According to NAEP, only 30 percent of the state's fourth graders were proficient.

The problem is not limited to 4th graders; it manifests itself throughout the entire education system. For example, the US is essentially the only OECD country where our 25-35 year olds are less well educated than the 55-65 year olds.

This obfuscation is unacceptable. Unless we level with parents and students about the true state of education, this country doesn't have much of a chance to make students competitive in 21st century global marketplace.

We are not the only ones pushing for change. In late 2009, President Obama launched the "Educate to Innovate" campaign to bring American students back to the "top of the pack" in STEM education in the next decade. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan told parents at the 2010 Annual National PTA Conference, "[W]e have been actually lying to children and lying to ourselves by pretending that 50 different standards, in 50 different states, will make America competitive and help our children succeed in life . . . We have to tell the truth. And we have to raise the bar for all children."

Looking ahead, the business community knows we can't flourish without a trained and prepared workforce. Our students will be competing in a global economy, so it's critical that our schools use high standards for assessing progress. It is because of our concern about the future of our students and their ability to innovate and grow American business that the CEOs from the partnership have sent letters to the nation's Governors urging them to resist political pressure to lower expectations.

So where do we go from here? The solution starts with establishing realistic and challenging proficiency standards. We need our leaders, particularly governors, to stiffen their backs, fight against complacency and raise and create uniform standards -- and we ask them to stand firm when the initial reports may reveal their students are not meeting the new, but more honest, standards.

Some states are already doing the right thing and increasing standards. Delaware, Michigan, Tennessee and Oregon have recently raised the bar. New York also raised its passing scores and proficiency levels dropped, causing a media outcry. But leaders in the state are standing strong and doing the hard work to ensure that students will succeed.

Change the Equation members are pledging to do our part by standing behind leaders who take the brave and potentially unpopular step of raising standards. And we also commit to improving our philanthropy and expanding effective STEM learning programs to the communities that need them most.

It's time to use honest assessments and do the hard work of getting more of our students to clear the bar. Together, we can stop the race to the bottom for American students.

Craig Barrett is the retired CEO/Board Chairman of Intel and Board Chair of Change the Equation, a national coalition of 110 CEOs who are committed to improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM learning) for every child, with a particular focus on girls and students of color.