Do these schemes truly ensure the skills we need for the modern workforce going forward?
Most of them measure time and rank, but few measure knowledge and skill.
This time-based approach arose because the commission found it difficult to define exactly what a graduate should know and be able to do. Everyone at that time could agree that young people needed to be in school; so we set our graduation requirements in terms of hours of study: 3 hours of math, 4 of english, 4 of history, and so forth. A scale all could understand, and easily measure. This approach remains in force in most of the United States, for both schools and colleges.
In fact, the questions on the army admission tests had little to do with being a soldier; the questions were selected because they did a good job at ranking candidates quickly and reliably along a normal distribution. The standardized tests that we use today, listed above, follow this same tradition: they rank students of a certain age along a nice neat scale of percentiles. The questions on the test are for the most part irrelevant and out-of-context; they do not directly measure the knowledge and skill of an educated person. Try it yourself -- take the sample online tests offered at the links above. They are the same kinds of questions your great-grandfather faced on the Army Intelligence test, and that you confronted in the bubble-tests you took in the fifth grade. The questions are chosen because they have proven themselves to rank people reliably on a standard distribution, that's all.
Time and rank: this is what we use today to measure the skills of our workforce. We sit them in school for the requisite number of hours; and we periodically ranked them on a standardized norm-referenced test. Whether they know anything useful is irrelevant under either measure. With time we know that you sat in Biology class for 8,134 minutes. But we have no idea whether or not you know anything about cells and plants and animals. With rank we know that you know a little more than the person behind you, and a little less than the person in front of you, about something. But we have no idea whether you know anything worth knowing, or are ready to take your place as a valuable contributor to society, or to succeed in college, or to enter the workforce.
Why are we afraid to define what an educated citizen should know and be able to do? Because drawing up such a definition forces us into uncomfortable discussions of what's important. Of core values. Of right and wrong. Of how the world is changing and what to do about it. Policymakers are afraid of these discussions, and their results, because they take time and make enemies. Educators are afraid of these discussions because they have defined their profession into the limited role of craftsmen who produce whatever the policymakers ask for. And nobody listens to the philosophers anymore.
For example, consider the skill of public speaking. According to most employers, this is a key communication skill for the modern worker, to stand up in front of a group of people and explain, persuade, admonish, praise, act, recite, tell a story, tell a joke. In clear English that works with the audience. People without this skill are not as valuable in the workforce.
And yet this obvious workplace skill is not included in the Common Core State Standards. Instead, in the standards for speaking, we get this obfuscatory argot:
"Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data."
Or consider mathematical skills. What the workforce needs, according to all of the surveys and studies of the last ten years, are people who can take a complex everyday problem posed in the real world, and use a variety of mathematical concepts and tools to understand and to solve it.
You won't find this in the standards. The standards are based pretty much on the definition of theoretical mathematics from the Carnegie Commission days. And so we get very little mention of applying math to the real world, and lots of standards like this:
"Rewrite simple rational expressions in different forms; write a(x)/b(x) in the form q(x) + r(x)/b(x), where a(x), b(x), q(x), and r(x) are polynomials with the degree of r(x) less than the degree of b(x), using inspection, long division, or, for the more complicated examples, a computer algebra system."