Common Core Watch

When New York released the test-score data from its first administration of the Common Core–aligned tests, they unleashed the shot heard ‘round the education world. Critics are—predictably—outraged. But let’s remember, when the state set the cut scores too low and reformers like Joel Klein benefited, they were also outraged. The old test scores, they rightly explained, didn’t align to what we knew from NAEP and other data were overall low levels of achievement.

These new test scores are more in line with what we’ve learned about achievement in New York from the NAEP test, from the college-readiness assessments given to high school students last year, and from college completion rates. But rather than claim victory, critics are still furious.

Why? There are no doubt myriad reasons—some of them political—but certainly two contributing factors are the fact that we haven’t had a real debate about the role consequences should play in an era of more rigorous tests and the fear over how these tests will be used to judge individual teachers and schools.

While reformers are right to stand by leaders as they work to right the ship, if we want to build stronger support for these changes, we need to carefully examine how they have played out in recent years and ask hard questions about the role of consequences in the harsh sunlight of real results.

While I’ve long supported standards- and accountability-driven reform, I’ve also questioned the wisdom of state-led accountability...

Jason Zimba, PhD
Indianapolis Statehouse
After testifying in Indianapolis, Jason Zimba reflects on what he learned about the entrenched opposition to the Common Core State Standards.
Photo by W9NED

Earlier this week, I spent a day visiting Indiana’s beautiful nineteenth-century statehouse in Indianapolis, where I testified about the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Testimony in favor of the standards was also given to legislators by in-state experts, like Warren Township school superintendent Dena Cushenberry and Purdue Dean of Admissions Pamela Horne. Afterwards, I reflected about what I had learned about the entrenched opposition to the standards.

The first thing I learned is that there is a significant gap in the quality of the evidence being brought forward in this debate.

  • In my testimony, I cited a peer-reviewed journal study by a distinguished university researcher on international mathematics performance about the grades and topics in the standards—research concluding that the Common Core agrees with high-performing countries better than any previous state standards, including those of Indiana. During his testimony, noted critic of the standards Dr. Williamson Evers cited an online news article.
  • At a previous hearing, Mr. Ze’ev Wurman apparently told legislators[1] that  “Common Core completely forgot conversion among fractional forms—fractions, percent, and decimals.” But standard 7.EE.3 on page 49
  • ...
Jason Zimba, PhD

Until now, I have generally kept out of the politics of the Common Core State Standards, in favor of helping teachers, districts, and states understand and implement them. But the recent editorial by James Milgram and Emmett McGroarty was so misleading that it demands a response.

Just how rigorous are the Common Core State Standards?

Jason Zimba
Jason Zimba: "Calling the Common Core 'fuzzy' is not only misreading the standards—it is also, I fear, sanctioning others to misread them in the same way."

  • The standards received a perfect score for content and rigor in the Fordham Institute’s 2010 review.
  • Research by William Schmidt, a leading expert on international mathematics performance and a previous director of the U.S. TIMSS study, has compared the Common Core to high performing countries in grades K–8. The agreement was found to be high. Moreover, no state's previous math standards were as close a match to the high-performing countries as the Common Core.
  • Milgram and his circle are a decided minority on the question of Common Core. The presidents of every major mathematical society in America support the Common Core, including the American Mathematical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the National Association of Mathematicians. These presidents lead organizations representing literally hundreds of research mathematicians.

Milgram and McGroarty have misrepresented the standards in an...

Tomorrow, the New York Department of Education plans to publicly release the results from the first administration of its new Common Core–aligned assessment—and leaders have already tipped their hands to let schools and districts know that the news isn’t good.

Common Core
We raise the bar in order to ground the work of our schools in an honest understanding of how our students are actually doing.
Photo by Benjamin Chun

Even though this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in New York, especially since state officials have been previewing the presumed drop in scores for nearly a year, opponents of standards- and accountability-driven reform are at the ready to jump on the announcement and lambaste State Education Commissioner John King and New York City Mayor Bloomberg, both of whom remain steadfast in support of the Common Core.

Some of the criticism you will see will be familiar: these standards and tests are simply pitched at a level that’s too high, some will say. Our expectations are unrealistic. Diane Ravitch previewed those complaints earlier this year (and in a post written this morning) when she came out against the Common Core. At the time, she argued,

When Kentucky piloted the Common Core, proficiency rates dropped by 30 percent. The Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents has...

My name is Kathleen Porter-Magee; I’m a senior director and Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also leads ground-level work in the great state of Ohio. We support a variety of education reforms, with a particular focus on school choice and standards- and accountability-driven reform. In addition to my own policy work, I’ve spent several years working to implement rigorous standards in urban Catholic and charter school classrooms. Fordham’s president, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan Administration, and its executive vice president, Mike Petrilli, served under George W. Bush.

I’m honored to be with you here today and am grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about what I believe is one of the most important education initiatives of the past decade: the development, adoption, and implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

I hope to help explain why the Common Core hold such promise, to demystify what the standards are all about, and to debunk some of the most common myths and misconceptions. But before we decide whether the CCSS is the right choice for Indiana students, it’s important to understand four facts:

1.   The Common Core State Standards are clear, rigorous, and nationally and internationally benchmarked.
2.   Common Core English standards emphasize the importance of reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science, and other courses.
3.   The Common Core effort is and has always been a state-led effort...

I’ve been a little quieter than usual on the blog lately for a number of reasons, chief among them that I and the rest of the Porter-Magee clan were able to escape to New Hampshire earlier this month. An annual tradition that takes us away from cell phone and mostly out of WiFi range and lets us swim and kayak and just enjoy each other.

Perhaps the biggest reason for my silence, however, is that, after nearly four years back working at Fordham (on my second tour, my first having started in 2002), I’ve decided to take a position as the Senior Advisor for Policy and Instruction at the College Board. There, I’ll be able to focus even more of my research, reading, and writing work on understanding classroom-level standards implementation and assessment issues.

The decision to leave Fordham is one of the most difficult of my professional career. I’ve never worked for or with an organization that is as committed to excellence as it is to an open exchange of ideas. While we at Fordham all share certain reform and policy ideals and principles, there is no expectation that we toe some predetermined “party line.” (This is clear not just in our internal conversations, but in the open—often public—debates that we all regularly have.) What Fordham has always stood for is not blind ideology, but rigor of thought. And that expectation of quality has pushed me to clarify my thinking, to improve my writing, and to develop a sharper...

PARCCing lot
Has Common Core lost its drive?
Photo by Thomas Hawk

This week, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) released its latest cost estimates, which are coming in significantly higher than the costs of the Smarter Balanced assessments. Almost immediately following the announcement, Georgia dropped out of the federally funded assessment consortium. This after Utah, Alabama, and Oklahoma dropped out of both consortia and after North Dakota switched from PARCC to Smarter Balanced.

Around the blogosphere, speculation—and occasional high-fiving—erupted. My friend and colleague, Andy Smarick, jumped on the announcement declaring it a “disaster” on Twitter and hinting that the PARCC defections might be signaling the beginning of the end of the Common Core. On Twitter, Rick Hess lamented, “If only Core Core'ites had been warned to take political, policy concerns seriously...” And Mike Petrilli lambasted Georgia officials on Twitter, chiding, “Shame on Georgia. You really can’t afford to spend 1/3 of 1% of your per pupil funding on tests?”

Of course, Common Core supporters have lots of reasons to worry...

The following testimony was prepared for delivery on July 23, 2013, to the Arkansas House and Senate Interim Committees on Education.

Senators and Representatives: It’s an honor to be with you today. My name is Mike Petrilli; I’m the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also does on-the-ground work in the great state of Ohio. We promote education reforms of all stripes, with a particular focus on school choice and standards-based reform. I was honored to serve in the George W. Bush Administration; my boss, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan Administration. Perhaps most importantly, I was raised up the road in suburban St. Louis, where I attended public schools. (Go Cardinals!)

I suspect that not all of my friends agree with me, but I am glad that you are holding this hearing and debating the issue of whether Arkansas should stick with the Common Core. These standards were developed by the states, and to be successful, they need to be owned by the states. Our educators are all too familiar with the “flavor of the month”—reforms that come and go. They are wondering if they should wait this one out too. By having this open debate on the Common Core, you can settle the issue once and for all—and either change course or move full speed ahead.

I am here today to urge you to stay the course with the Common Core. I will start...

Despite the tireless marriage-wrecking efforts of Common Core opponents and their acolytes and funders, few states that initially pledged their troth to these rigorous new standards for English and math are in divorce mode. What’s far more fluid, unpredictable, and—frankly—worrying are the two elements of standards-based reform that make a vastly greater difference in the real world than standards themselves: implementation and assessment.

Implementation and assessment
Standards are not self actualizing; unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction.
Photo by Ginnerobot

Don’t get me wrong. Standards are important, because they set forth the desired outcomes of schooling and it’s obviously better to aim for clear, ambitious, and academically worthy goals than at targets that are vague, banal, easy, or trendy. Standards are also supposed to provide the framework that shapes and organizes the rest of the education enterprise: curricula, teacher preparation, promotion and graduation expectations, testing and accountability, and just about everything else. (Kindergarten standards, for example, should affect what happens in preschool just as twelfth-grade standards should synch with what gets taught to college freshmen.)

But standards are not self-actualizing. Indeed, they can be purely symbolic, even illusory. Unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.

California is the woeful poster child...

Paul Bruno

Most people agree that a well-rounded science education must provide students with both content knowledge and facility with the practices of scientific inquiry. That is why both facts and skills should be clearly represented in the science standards adopted by states.

As the Fordham Institute demonstrated in its evaluation of the final draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, however, by giving “undue prominence” to scientific skills and practices, the NGSS ultimately underemphasize content knowledge. As a result, the NGSS are an inadequate guide for science teachers—like me—who need to know what is expected of our students and us.

What form, then, should practices take in science standards? There may be numerous ways of integrating practices into standards documents, but as a science teacher I appreciate in them at least two qualities.

First, clearly and specifically articulate the practices in which students should be able to engage.

This may seem obvious, but even the skills-heavy NGSS often fall short in this regard.

For example, the NGSS’s middle school “waves and electromagnetic radiation” standards require that students “[d]evelop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.” This does sound vaguely scientific, but since it is unclear what would make an adequate model—or even what is meant by “model” —this provides little practical guidance for teachers.

In contrast, consider California’s “Investigation and Experimentation” standards for sixth graders, which demand that students “[c]onstruct appropriate graphs from data and develop qualitative statements about the...

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