Common Core

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of blog posts that will take a closer look at the findings and implications of Evaluating the Content and Quality of Next Generation Assessments, Fordham’s new first-of-its-kind report. The first post can be read here

Few policy issues over the past several years have been as contentious as the rollout of new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). What began with more than forty states working together to develop the next generation of assessments has devolved into a political mess. Fewer than thirty states remain in one of the two federally funded consortia (PARCC and Smarter Balanced), and that number continues to dwindle. Nevertheless, millions of children have begun taking new tests—either those developed by the consortia, ACT (Aspire), or state-specific assessments constructed to measure student performance against the CCSS, or other college- and career-ready standards.

A key hope for these new tests was that they would overcome the weaknesses of the previous generation of state assessments. Among those weaknesses were poor alignment with the standards they were designed to assess and low overall levels of cognitive demand (i.e., most items required simple recall or...

A decade ago, U.S. education policies were a mess. It was the classic problem of good intentions gone awry.

At the core of the good idea was the commonsense insight that if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should set clear expectations for student learning, measure whether our kids are meeting those expectations, and hold schools accountable for their outcomes (mainly gauged in terms of academic achievement).

And sure enough, under the No Child Left Behind law, every state in the land mustered academic standards in (at least) reading and math, annual tests in grades 3–8, and some sort of accountability system for their public schools.

Unfortunately, those standards were mostly vague, shoddy, or misguided; the tests were simplistic and their “proficiency” bar set too low. The accountability systems encouraged all manner of dubious practices, such as focusing teacher effort on a small subset of students at risk of failing the exams rather than advancing every child’s learning.

What a difference a decade makes. To be sure, some rooms in the education policy edifice remain in disarray. But thanks to the hard work and political courage of the states, finally abetted by some...

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been evaluating the quality of state academic standards for nearly twenty years. Our very first study, published in the summer of 1997, was an appraisal of state English standards by Sandra Stotsky. Over the last two decades, we’ve regularly reviewed and reported on the quality of state K–12 standards for mathematicsscienceU.S. historyworld historyEnglish language arts, and geography, as well as the Common CoreInternational BaccalaureateAdvanced Placement and other influential standards and frameworks (such as those used by PISA, TIMSS, and NAEP). In fact, evaluating academic standards is probably what we’re best known for.

For most of the last two decades, we’ve also dreamed of evaluating the tests linked to those standards—mindful, of course, that in most places, the tests are the real standards. They’re what schools (and sometimes teachers and students) are held accountable for, and they tend to drive curricula and instruction. (That’s probably the reason why we and other analysts have never been able to demonstrate a close relationship between the quality of standards per se and changes in student achievement.) We wanted to know how well matched the assessments were to the standards, whether they were of high...

  • If you ask a thoughtful question, you may be pleased to receive a smart and germane answer. If you post that question in your widely read newspaper column on education, you’ll sometimes be greeted with such a torrent of spontaneous engagement that you have to write a second column. That’s what happened to the Washington Post’s Jay Matthews, who asked his readers in December to email him their impressions of Common Core and its innovations for math: Was it baffling them, or their kids, when they sat down to tackle an assignment together? He revealed some of the responses last week, and the thrust was definitively in support of the new standards. “My first reaction to a Common Core worksheet was repulsion,” one mother wrote of her first grader’s homework. “I set that aside and learned how to do what [my son] was doing. And something magical happened: I started doing math better in my head.” The testimonials are an illuminating contribution to what has become a sticky subject over the last few months. Common Core advocates would be well advised to let parents know that their kids’ wonky-looking problem sets can be conquered after all.
  • Homework
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My wife and I both spend time working with our kids on their homework. We have also made a family tradition of “Saturday School,” a routine that my wife and I instituted a couple of years ago because our kids’ school was using a pre-Common Core math curriculum that wasn’t keeping pace with the standards. It has become a weekly exercise for the whole family’s brain. On my personal blog, I’ve shared some of the math problems that I’d written for Saturday School so that other parents could use the problems at home if they wished.

On busy nights, most parents (including me) are hard-pressed to find time to help with daily homework. That’s why my first piece of advice for parents is that they help strengthen their children’s work ethic and accountability by ensuring that homework is completed. My kids have their own dedicated space at home for schoolwork. When they get home from school, the next day’s homework has to be complete and correct before there is any screen time or other activities.

Parents can also help at home with skill building and fluency practice—things like memorizing basic math facts. When it comes to skills, practice is essential....

I encountered a bit of advice this week that my dear mother would have welcomed during her brief and inglorious career as my pre-Algebra tutor: When it comes to assisting kids with their math assignments, parents can afford to do less.

After struggling to help her first grader with some unfamiliar addition and subtraction formats, the Hechinger Report’s Kathleen Lucadamo sought advice from teachers and parents on how to cope with changing curricular materials and methods. The group recommendation was basically to act as the highway patrol rather than a chauffeur—that is, be on the lookout for breakdowns and give directions when necessary, but don’t pick the route and do the driving yourself. In the words of Jason Zimba, a physicist and the lead writer of the Common Core math standards, “The math instruction on the part of parents should be low. The teacher is there to explain the curriculum.”

This consensus is more than just a remedy for the brain-melting feuds erupting at American kitchen tables over the spiffiest way to factor a polynomial. It also offers a shortcut around one of the least enlightening discourses of modern education politics, which is the squabble over why none of us can...

  • There’s a reason we don’t bounce our grandkids on our knees and delight them with stories of how Congress muscled through the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984. As the saying goes, there’s nothing pretty about the way the sausage gets made. But for those who were begging for a new federal education law, Politico’s postmortem on the passage of the Every Student Succeed Act provides an inside look at a splendid, savory knackwurst of statutory goodness. In the year following the 2014 Republican midterm landslides, draft legislation had to overcome anti-testing fervor from teachers’ unions, the remnants of the anti-Common Core crusade, and the sudden resignation of House Speaker John Boehner. Between clearing these obstacles and stitching together the perennial philosophical differences of Left and Right, the ESSA used up seven or eight of its nine lives. Thankfully, it’s now a matter of settled law.
  • Speaking of the backlash against high academic standards: Reporting out of Colorado suggests that we might need to think differently about the opt-out movement and its adherents. Though the bulk of the students who absented themselves from the state’s PARCC test were indeed residents of wealthier, high-performing districts—you know, where the
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Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. But if you’re pressed for time and want to end all intelligent life quickly, nothing beats a task force.

In New York last week, a task force chosen by Governor Andrew Cuomo issued its report on Common Core. In a model of stunning governmental efficiency, the group managed to “listen” to 2,100 New York students, teachers, parents, and various other stakeholders. They then retreated to their chambers to write, edit, and publish a fifty-one-page report a mere ten weeks after they were impaneled. But clearly that was time enough for these solons to learn and thoughtfully consider what the Empire State needs: to adopt “new, locally driven New York State standards in a transparent and open process.” The report has twenty recommendations on how to bring this about.

It should be noted (speaking of governmental efficiency) that God himself was content with a mere ten modest suggestions to govern all known human activity. Cuomo’s task force has double that number—just for Common Core in a single state. But God acted alone. On a task force, every voice must be heard, every grievance aired. And they were, in all their...

Our friend and colleague Mike Petrilli is right about many things, but he’s wrong to dismiss solid interstate comparisons of academic performance as a “nice to have,” not a “must-have.” He acknowledges that the Common Core standards have largely failed to usher in an era of timely, valid, and informative comparisons, but then he says, in effect, never mind, we still have NAEP, PISA, and other measures by which to know how one state is doing academically versus another and in comparison with the country as a whole.

It is indeed a good thing that we have those other measures because it’s true that the Common Core era has failed to deliver on what many of us saw as one of its most valuable and important features: a platinum meter stick to be used to measure, monitor, and compare student achievement, not just between states but also among districts, individual schools, even individual classrooms and children. That’s how the superintendent in Springfield, Illinois, could determine how his schools—even just his fifth-graders—compare with their counterparts in Springfield, Oregon, Springfield, Ohio, and Springfield, Massachusetts, both in absolute achievement and in academic growth trajectories in math and English. That’s how a principal...

Nancy Brynelson, Corley Dennison, Daniel Doerger, Jacqueline E. King, William Moore, and Faith Muirhead

As states have implemented college and career readiness standards, it has sometimes been assumed that most of the work and attention has occurred at the elementary grades. In truth, many states have been working for some time to ensure that grade twelve prepares all students for post-secondary success. Programs like AP, IB, and dual enrollment are the most touted offerings for well-prepared students. But there has also been a great effort to create courses for students who are not yet college-ready and who can use senior year to close academic gaps and avoid the remedial instruction that so often acts as a drain on the time, finances, and morale of ascending college students. Just last month, the Fordham Institute held an event called “Pre-medial Education” that discussed ways to bring high school-based college readiness programs to scale.

For colleges and universities, “fixing” remediation is a major priority. According to Complete College America, three out of five students entering community colleges and one out of five students entering four-year institutions require remediation. The vast majority of these students (78 percent at community colleges and 63 percent at four-year institutions) do not go on to successfully complete gateway credit-bearing courses....

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