How well can Johnny add? Right now, states try to answer that question in troublingly disparate ways. According to one recent federal study, a fourth-grade student considered proficient in math by Tennessee's education standards would need five or six years to catch up to meet the requirements in Massachusetts.

Education standards aren't the same thing as tests. They're baselines of knowledge and skills that states expect students to acquire at each grade level in math, reading, history and science. But the exams required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2001, vary with the standards of each individual state. And a disturbing number of the states have deliberately kept their standards low, because it makes it easier for more students to pass the exams. "In many ways, No Child Left Behind made it really apparent how the standards across states were strikingly different," says Amber Winkler, of the Fordham Foundation, "and not really good for kids."

The situation may be about to change. All but two states now have signed on, at least in principle, to an initiative that would create a common set of learning benchmarks across the nation. The effort is being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers. The goal is to create a set of education standards that all states could adopt--standards that would be higher, in fact, than currently exist in any state. This fall, the NGA/CCSSO team released a draft list of required skills that kids would be expected to master by the time they finish high school. The team will be working backward from there, writing new standards for each grade level in elementary and middle school.

They're moving fast. Some states are expecting to adopt the complete set of standards by the middle of next year. Part of the urgency is derived from the fact that federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan has set aside $350 million in stimulus dollars to help pay for the cost of creating test materials that would be aligned with the new standards. But some of the impetus comes from the very states that have been skating by with low requirements. They're beginning to realize that there's more at stake than being embarrassed by unflattering comparisions with neighbors during testing season. They're also increasingly aware that they have been cheating their own kids when it comes to preparing them for employment competition in the international marketplace.

Stimulus money aside, the feds have been careful to keep a formal distance from the standards effort. During the 1990s, talk of Congress setting national standards proved highly controversial. Many state and local-district officials continue to guard their prerogatives when it comes to standards and curriculum. As Congressman George Miller, who chairs the U.S. House Education Committee, puts it, "We're putting a very big bet on states to get us to a set of common standards."

Despite the frequent insistence that this is a "state-led" effort, some remain nervous about federal intrusion. In other matters, Duncan has stipulated that states have to follow federal policies. For example, states must lift caps on the number of charter schools if they hope to receive billions in competitive grant dollars that are at his disposal.

Each state is going to be allowed some flexibility in adopting the standards. State officials can add 15 percent of their own material to the curriculum mix, so that students in the Great Plains can be taught about soil erosion while Floridians can study the Everglades. But it's not clear who will determine whether the state remains in compliance. There is concern that the Department of Education will take on this role by imposing its own priorities as standards are implemented, and as the assessments and teacher training designed to implement the standards are released. "I've been asked more than once, 'When is the national curriculum coming?'" says Christopher Koch, the state education superintendent in Illinois. "That scares some people."

Despite such concerns, Koch has been busy laying the groundwork in Springfield for the political battles that are certain to start once the standards are sent to Illinois and other states for adoption. Nationwide, the stars have aligned well for this effort and so far there are no prominent institutional opponents who are critical of the idea. "There's been remarkably quiet opposition," says Judith Rizzo, who has helped push the common-standards effort as executive director of a University of North Carolina education policy institute. "It's nothing like we've had in the past around this stuff."

No doubt, it's still going to take some selling to persuade legislators and state boards to embrace standards they had no role in drafting. That's particularly true in states such as Florida, that recently have adopted new standards of their own. "We have contractual requirements and we would need to get our return on investment on work that's already been done," says Eric Smith, Florida's education commissioner. "There needs to be an understanding that you can commit to adoption, but it's not going to happen with the flipping of a switch." Officials in quite a few other states feel the same way.

Aside from the federal dollars that will start flowing in support of this effort, there will be economies of scale, with states able to share materials and strategies much more easily than they have in the past. This is important. It can cost states five times as much to have tests designed according to their own standards. Buying a product used in several other states, Rizzo says, "will save a ton of money."

Given the possible financial incentives and the skill with which the common-standards proponents have dodged political landmines, there appears to be real momentum behind this effort. The draft standards unveiled thus far achieve several long-sought goals. They are not only tougher than those currently required by any state, but clearer, as well. Most states currently demand a little bit of knowledge about many things, rather than in-depth understanding of basic content that is essential for everyone. The common standards emphasize the need to focus on fewer, but essential, materials and skills.

The effort may be long overdue. But standards, no matter how rigorous, are only a first step toward higher achievement. The new standards will be meaningful only to the extent they provide a foundation for changes both in classroom instruction and in the way students are tested.