SUWANEE, Ga. - By third grade, students should know how to write a complex sentence and add fractions, no matter whether they live in Georgia or California.
Eighth graders should understand the Pythagorean theorem. And by high school graduation, all U.S. students should be ready for college or a career.
That's the goal of sweeping new education benchmarks released Wednesday called the Common Core State Standards, a project that aims to replace a hodgepodge of educational goals varying wildly from state to state with a uniform set of expectations for students. It's the first time states have joined together to establish what students should know by the time they graduate from high school.
"With these standards, we can provide all of the country's children with the education they deserve," said West Virginia schools superintendent Steve Paine, who gathered with other educators and officials from across the country at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee just outside Atlanta to release the final draft of the standards.
"Having consistent standards across the states means all of our children are going to be prepared for college and career, regardless of zip code," Paine said.
All but two states - Alaska and Texas - signed on to the original concept of Common Core more than a year ago.
States are expected to use the standards to revise their curriculum and tests to make learning more uniform across the country, eliminating inequities in education not only between states but also among districts.
The standards also aim to ensure that students transferring to a school district in a different state won't be far behind their classmates or have to repeat classes because they are more advanced.
Under Common Core, third graders should understand subject-verb agreement, fifth graders need to know about metaphors and similes, and seventh graders must understand how to calculate surface area. States that sign up are supposed to use the standards as a base on which to build their curricula and testing, but they can make their benchmarks even tougher.
Critics worry that the standards will basically nationalize public schools rather than letting states decide what is best for their students. Texas' commissioner of education, Robert Scott, has said his state wants to preserve its "sovereign authority to determine what is appropriate for Texas children to learn in its public schools."
So far, the standards have been adopted by Kentucky, Hawaii, Maryland, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, and 40 more states plus Washington, D.C., have agreed to adopt them in coming months, said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which joined with the National Governors Association in leading the Common Core project.
The federal government was not involved but has encouraged the project, including adoption of the standards as part of the scoring in the Education Department's "Race to the Top" grant competition.
President Obama has said he wants to have money from Title I - the federal government's biggest school-aid program - be contingent on the adoption of college- and career-ready reading and math standards.
Common Core was structured over a year of meetings with teachers, parents, school administrators, civil rights leaders, education policymakers, business leaders, and others. The group also collected comments from more than 10,000 people online.