This spring, 12th-graders in Minnesota and across the country will achieve a major life milestone. Thousands of fresh-faced teenagers will walk across a stage to receive a high school diploma. All will have completed their state's graduation requirements, which should mean that they're ready to pursue higher education.

In truth, far too many American high school graduates are not well-prepared for those next steps. They have a piece of paper stamped "Graduate,'' but not the knowledge and skills to go with it, in part because education standards vary widely from state to state.

That's one of several reasons why it makes sense to establish national standards. This week the nation moved closer to that worthy goal with the release of proposed uniform standards for math and English. The project was coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

In addition to making grad requirements more uniform state-to-state, national standards could lead to regional or national collectives in which states might use the same textbooks and tests. Achievement comparisons across states and with other countries would be more meaningful. And the United States would join high-performing nations in raising academic expectations for its students.

Forty-eight of the 50 states endorsed the idea of developing common standards -- including Minnesota. The first draft, released Wednesday after more than a year of collaboration by governors and chief state school officers, contains K-12 benchmarks in English and math.

The idea was to establish exactly what kids at all grade levels must learn to be ready for college or a career after 12th grade. Experts did the writing and research, but state education officials and teachers from around the country were actively involved.

In English and language arts, for example, there is no required reading list, but books are recommended for different grades. Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'' and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince'' are among the fourth-grade picks; 11th-grade suggestions include Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice,'' Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye'' and Henry David Thoreau's "Walden."

Minnesota state education officials say that the English draft guidelines are comparable to this state's standards but that the math portion is not. But this proposal is a draft, which means there should still be opportunities to make changes, including increasing the rigor in mathematics.

The proposed standards aren't perfect, and it won't be easy to get them adopted. Two states -- Texas and Alaska -- have already opted out. And though the standards proposal was driven by states, some will view national criteria as too much federal intrusion into local control of education. The draft has been lauded for matching achievement with grade levels and criticized for piling too many more duties onto teachers.

Despite flaws, the effort to establish national benchmarks for what kids should learn and know is a step in the right direction.