As much as I respect President Obama and his overall vision for our nation, I had to cringe as he, like so many politicians, used the children of Mississippi as an example of what's wrong with education in America.
The problems are real, but the comparison of the performance of fourth graders in Mississippi to those in Wyoming focuses attention on the symptoms, not the causes of educational inequity. The problem is NOT that the two states have differently written standards. For a wonderful analysis of the unmentioned and overlooked facts behind the President's comment, look at this in The Daily Howler (hat tip to my TLN colleague, Ken Bernstein for sharing).
Setting the bar high and limited testing at the end only helps us see where potential problems might be; it doesn't solve them.
The Howler piece points out several realities that separate education in the two states (per pupil spending, percentage of poor and Black students, which tests are administered, etc.) One it does not include is the difference in teacher pay: Average pay for teachers in Wyoming (5th in the nation) in 2006-07 was $50,771, while Mississippi teachers only averaged $40,182 (47th in nation). All of these disparities have their roots in Mississippi's sad history of racial discrimination and its sibling: opposition to progress, especially in the public sector where Black people might obtain some of the benefit. The price of having fought for generations to keep one group of citizens at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder is now having to be faced and paid.
Improving the quality of education for all our children is a national priority, but a localized task. It requires the knowledgable contributions of many parties, most notably the parents and teachers of a given state or community. Two groups historically left out in the planning stages of these major reform efforts.