Standards, Testing & Accountability

This post has been updated with the full text of "No time to lose on early reading"

I’m a fan of the Common Core State Standards, but I recognize there are many reasonable and honorable areas of disagreement about them, both politically and educationally. One recent thread of opposition, however, strikes me as quite unreasonable: the idea that Common Core demands too much by expecting children to be able to read by the end of kindergarten.

recent report from a pair of early childhood advocacy organizations (Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood) makes the argument that “forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful” and calls for Common Core to be dropped in kindergarten and “rethought along developmental lines.” It’s a really bad idea. Early reading struggles left unaddressed tend to persist, setting kids up for failure. Common Core is not without faults, but its urgency about early childhood literacy is not one of them.

The first red flag in the report is its insistence that Common Core is “developmentally inappropriate.” That sounds scientific and authoritative, but it’s a notoriously slippery concept, harkening back to the day when Piaget theorized that children go...

I’d like to see Bobby Jindal use a teleprompter the next time he attacks Common Core. I’d like to be reassured he knows how to read.

Jindal continued his full-throated and disingenuous attack on Common Core for the benefit of the base at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week. “The federal government has no right imposing curriculum,” he noted, “when these decisions have always been made by local parents, by teachers, by local leaders.” Needless to say (unless you’re saying it to the governor of Louisiana), Common Core comes nowhere near imposing curriculum; this the cynical Jindal surely knows—or at least would know if he actually took the time to read the standards. 

Jindal was the worst offender, but not the only one. At CPAC, Marco Rubio invoked the prospect under Common Core of “a national school board that imposes a national curriculum on the whole country.” What curriculum, Senator? 

Even National Review, no bastion of squishy liberalism, cringed at a CPAC panel on the standards, describing it as “a badly missed opportunity to educate conservatives about how Common Core has created tension between small-government principles and the priorities of one of the most successful right-of-center...

While the merit and politics of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been much debated and discussed, one topic has been virtually ignored: What do the standards portend for America’s high-ability students?  In a new brief from Fordham, Jonathan Plucker, professor of education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, provides guidance for districts and schools implementing the Common Core.

1. Common Core is no excuse to ditch gifted services.
2. State and local officials should get rid of policies that hurt gifted students and strengthen those that help them.
3. Schools should work hard to make differentiation "real."
4. Schools should make use of existing high-quality materials that help teachers adapt the Common Core for gifted students.

Download the brief, read “Can gifted education survive the Common Core?” by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Northern, and watch today’s event to learn more.

By Jonathan Plucker

Gadfly editorial by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Northern

While the merit and politics of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been much debated and discussed, one topic has been virtually ignored: What do the standards portend for America’s high-ability students? This brief addresses that question and provides guidance for CCSS-implementing districts and schools as they seek to help these youngsters to reach their learning potential. Four key points emerge.

1. Common Core is no excuse to ditch gifted services.
2. State and local officials should get rid of policies that hurt gifted students and strengthen those that help them.
3. Schools should work hard to make differentiation "real."
4. Schools should make use of existing high-quality materials that help teachers adapt the Common Core for gifted students.

What does the Common Core portend for America’s high-achieving and gifted students? Quite a kerfuffle has erupted in many parts of the country, with boosters of these rigorous new standards declaring that they’re plenty sufficient to challenge the ablest pupils and boosters of gifted education fretting that this will be used as the latest excuse to do away with already-dwindling opportunities for such children.

Previous research by Fordham and others has made clear that the pre-Common Core era has not done well by high achievers in the United States. Almost all the policy attention has been on low achievers, and, in fact, they’ve made faster gains on measures such as NAEP than have their high-achieving classmates. Gifted children, in our view, have generally been short-changed in recent years by American public education, even as the country has awakened to their potential contributions to our economic competitiveness and technological edge. It would therefore be a terrible mistake for the new Common Core standards, praiseworthy as we believe they are, to become a justification for even greater neglect.

We asked gifted education expert Jonathan Plucker of the University of Connecticut to help us and others understand what lies...

J. Richard Gentry

This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at Psychology Today.

There is much wrong with American kindergartens—but the Common Core State Standards are not to blame. If interpreted correctly, the Common Core standards for literacy enable us to help enhance the kindergarten experience for all kindergarten children—from the underprepared to the most gifted and advanced. Here’s how the literacy standards can be interpreted to support reading and writing in kindergarten without harming any child.

A recent report by early childhood experts amplified by the Washington Post says that “requiring kindergartners to read—as Common Core does”—may harm children. The position paper, written by early childhood experts, states that many kindergartners aren’t developmentally ready to read. While well intended, both the media report and the recommendations of the early childhood experts lead us down the wrong path.

What’s the Harm in Common Core Kindergarten Literacy Standards?

Both the Washington Post report and the research report, which was issued jointly by the Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood organizations, call for the kindergarten Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to be withdrawn. Six of the literacy standards are deemed “harmful.” In this post, I un-complicate the six CCSS kindergarten standards and ask you to...

We at Fordham are big fans of Jason Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist who just joined the team at the Manhattan Institute. So we were doubly disappointed to see him parrot the Russ Whitehurst/Tom Loveless argument that “standards don’t matter.”

Of course they don’t—in isolation. On their own, content standards are just words on paper (or, as Rick Hess likes to say, akin to restaurants’ mission statements). We’ve acknowledged as much for years.

The question is whether they can spark instructional change. That’s no sure thing; as we’ve argued forever, it takes a ton of hard work at the state and local levels. First, it requires developing tests that assess the full range of the standards, including the challenging ones; this is something that arguably no state save for Massachusetts actually did in the pre-Common Core era. Second, it means investing in high-quality curricular materials and allowing time for teachers to master them. (No, the curricular materials need not be—and should not be—“national.” But surely we can do better than the schlock that textbook companies have been peddling for years.)

This is where Riley’s argument falls...

The SNL edition

Common Core in the suburbs, the highest high school graduation rate ever, our international education gap, and a comparison of the MCAS and PARCC assessments.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: “Educating Students for Success: A Comparison of the MCAS and PARCC Assessments as Indicators of College- and Career-Readiness,” Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (February 2015).


Michelle:            Hello, this is your host, Michelle Lerner of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at, and now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Amy Poehler of education reform, Alyssa Schwenk.

Alyssa:            Why thank you, Tina Fey.

Michelle:            Oh, why thank you!

Alyssa:            Did you watch SNL?

Michelle:            Of course. I even watched it live ...

Alyssa:            Okay, just checking.

Michelle:            ... which means I stayed up very late.

Alyssa:            That is way past your bedtime.

Michelle:            I know. It's a few hours, in fact. It ended and I immediately shut off the lights to go to sleep because I was that tired.

Alyssa:            I will actually cop to, I watched it the next day during the daytime hours.

Michelle:            We're switching roles, here!

Alyssa:            We're clearly influencing each other.

Michelle:            Okay, favorite take-aways?

Alyssa:            Well, obviously I loved seeing all of the old cast members. I also recently finished or am almost done reading ...

Michelle:            Of course you are.

Alyssa:            ... I never finish books, but "Live From New York", the oral history of Saturday Night Live. It was really cool to ...

Michelle:            I think I'm going to have to read that.

Alyssa:            It's very good.

Michelle:            I'll put it on my GoodReads.

Alyssa:            It's a good book. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a new book to read. It was really cool to see the older cast members. I never really watched the older episodes, never really saw the '70s, '80s, really only started watching probably ten years ago. It was cool to see the older skits.

Michelle:            My parents loved SNL and so when SNL put out all the videos and DVDs of the old skits, I watched them as a kid. Dana Carvey is my favorite. I love him as Bush Sr., and I was just so happy to see that Eddie Murphy showed up.

Alyssa:            Came back, yes.

Michelle:            Considering he never talks about SNL, I was kind of hoping he'd do a skit.

Alyssa:            Or at least the Gumby impression.

Michelle:            Oh, Mr. Rogers. There are so many good and inappropriate skits. I love it, but from SNL to ed reform, let's play “Pardon the Gadfly.”

Alyssa:            Fordham president, Mike Petrilli argues that Common Core works for most parents, even progressive, anti-test moms and dads in the suburbs. Will these folks be convinced?

Michelle:            No.

Alyssa:            Yeah, no.

Michelle:            I feel like, okay, I grew up in the suburbs. I'm hoping I don't end up in the suburbs, but I feel like ...

Alyssa:            Where are you house hunting again?

Michelle:            Okay, Arlington is not the suburbs.

Alyssa:            The suburbs.

Michelle:            Yeah. I feel like it's kind of in my destiny to be a suburban mom. I will never, mark my words, drive a minivan. In 10 to 15 years you can track me down and see if I'm driving a minivan.

Alyssa:            Okay, I will actually put that on my calendar for 2030: "Track down Michelle Lerner. Is she driving a minivan?"

Michelle:            Yeah, and the answer will be, "No." Anyway, I think the thing about education is there are lots of things that every kid receives, and it's for your kid but it's also for the other kid, the kid you don't know. I think it's really important to understand that Common Core and the assessments, which is what this is really about ...

Alyssa:            A big part of it.

Michelle:            ... it's not about your kid. It's about all kids. Checker has written about this in the past, and he said, "You know, testing is not about little Johnny. It's about all the little Johnny's out there in all the cities in all the states and all of that." I think we need to keep that in mind. I think this is a huge issue with Common Core and ed reform. I think messaging wise and policy wise, we would be wise not to cut out the suburban parents, but I think overall Common Core is actually good for all kids.

Alyssa:            Yeah. I do think something to keep I mind too is that the implementation matters, and if Common Core can be implemented well in high performing suburban districts, than yes, they're on board. Our report Common Core in the Districts found that teachers are, you know, the first source of buy-in and if you get the teachers on board, you can get the parents on board. I think focusing on implementation is a way that we can really reach these parents.

                        A lot of it is, you can incorporate Common Core into good instruction, high quality, developmentally appropriate instruction, and so keeping that at the forefront I think is critical for these parents, but I think it's going to be a tough sell at this point.

Michelle:            But I also think, to counter argue what we just, what I literally just argued, because this is what I do, what Mike's post talked about and our What Parents Want report found when we released that last year or the year before, it all molds together, is that in general, parents actually want the same thing. Common Core delivers on those same things, which is a high quality ... Well, parents want high quality curricula. Standards would hopefully deliver a good curricula. This should please suburban parents.

Alyssa:            Yeah, but whether or not it's being implemented well…

Michelle:            It's implementation every time. Always the implementation! Ugh! On the note of implementation, the most fascinating policy aspect there can be, let's go to question number two.

Alyssa:            Oh yeah. The high school graduation rate will soon hit an all time high, good news, surely, but does this raise concerns about college and career readiness?

Michelle:            Yes.

Alyssa:            Also yes.

Michelle:            We're agreeing again.

Alyssa:            Mike's going to hate this.

Michelle:            Whomp, whomp. Maybe we have more disagreement on SNL, even though that, too, is awesome. Yeah, I think this is, it's a good thing but it's also a bad thing. Yes, we want more kids graduation high school. We want a lot of them going on to college and being successful there or getting a really great career. The concern that's always there is, are we graduating students to up our graduation rate or are we graduating students at the level that they need to be in order to have a high school diploma?

Alyssa:            I think having the diploma, having the credential is important particularly for kids who are at risk or maybe not doing so hot in high school. Graduating high school, I think is important for them in the future, but right now there's still troubling gaps between states. Iowa, where I grew up and graduated high school, had a 90 percent graduation rate, but DC had a 62 percent graduation rate. There is still a lot of variance. There is still gaps between high income and low income students, and I think the important thing is, a we go into Common Core implementation, of course ...

Michelle:            I was waiting to say, isn't Common Core supposed to solve this?

Alyssa:            Yeah. We have to keep the graduation rate high while also turning the screws a little bit on college readiness.

Michelle:            I applaud you for not calling out any specific teachers, perhaps, in Iowa.

Alyssa:            Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I think Mrs. Cox probably still is listening to this. My high school graduation rate, full disclosure, was not the highest in the state. In fact, it was the fifth lowest, which is not necessarily something to put on the bumper sticker, but I checked their 2013 data, and they've upped it by 20 percentage points.

Michelle:            I think we should take this as a step in the right direction, both for your high school in Iowa and for all high schools around the country but we should rest on our laurels.

Alyssa:            Yep, still a lot to do. Question number three. U.S. Millennials, our most educated generation ever, are consistently outscored by international peers in all subjects on international assessments, including problem solving and technology rich environments. What's going on?

Michelle:            Oh, those lazy Millennials.

Alyssa:            This makes me so prickly when we call them Millennials. Anyways, I think this question is a really nice complement, actually, to our second question today, about whether or not the credentials actually mean what we hope their conferring. This report showed a lot of gaps at all levels, including people who are Millennials and have bachelor's degrees. They're either in the lowest or the three lowest scoring in almost all of these dimensions. The earlier study on high school graduation rates, we still have a lot of room here.

Michelle:            I also, I think this is just the story that gets printed every decade. When "A Nation At Risk" was released, what, 31 years ago ...

Alyssa:            And this report quotes it.

Michelle:            ... we said, "Hey, you know, there's a huge problem. We're falling behind our international peers. America is at risk," and all of the things that "A Nation At Risk" said, which is very similar to what we're still saying now. I just read a really great update report from the William T. Grant Foundation, is that right?

Alyssa:            I think I know which report you're referring to and I think it is, yes.

Michelle:            Which was an updated report from the early '80s about the forgotten half, which talks about how in the '80s there was a problem of getting people into college. Now it's a problem of getting people through college. It was a really fascinating report, but the big takeaway, which is not the one they intended, perhaps, was that we keep issuing the same reports every 10, 15, 20 years. Maybe it's not a new problem, it's just the continuation of the same problem.

Alyssa:            It's not, "the last group walked uphill both ways in the snow." It's "we're all walking uphill both ways in the snow." I also think that this report highlights the digital gap. One of the things that people are really focusing on with it is that it looks at problem solving skills in a digitally enhanced environment. Can you use the internet to find out information that you need? What we have in this country is a pretty wide digital divide between high income students who have ready access to it and low income students who do not.

                        When I was teaching, this was three or four years ago, my kids were in the computer lab for two hours a month, sometimes, and that's not enough to really get you to be very literate on the computer. It's not enough to teach you how to use digital resources. I think what this report ultimately highlights is there is a lot of inequality, and that extends to the digital realm.

Michelle:            While I'm not a thousand percent on the digital education is the way to go, I do think, because of all the jobs we have, everyone I know, whether it's a professional job or not, uses computers, uses technology. I really think we need to up this. I have always been a fan of teaching coding to everyone. I don't know any coding and I feel like I'm, all these younger people are smarter than me and I'm feeling left behind and all of those things.

Alyssa:            Snapchat.

Michelle:            Yeah. See, I just learned about YickYak as a new social media thing.

Alyssa:            I'm still confused about YickYak. I think I bring this up about once a week. YickYak confuses me. How to pay things on Snapchat confuses me, and I'm still technically a Millennial, yet all of these things confuse me.

Michelle:            Yeah but Ellen is younger than the both of us and she knows what YickYak is. I heard her talking about it the other day. There's a generational divide within Millenials.

Alyssa:            Yeah. There really, really is.

Michelle:            Actually, Catherine Rampell had a really fascinating column about how we shouldn't group Millennials all together because ...

Alyssa:            Under 24 is much different than older 25, I would venture.

Michelle:            Yeah, it is.

Alyssa:            It's the Snapchat line. Do you Snapchat?

Michelle:            On that note, that's all ... On the Snapchat note, that's all the time we have for Pardon the Gadfly. We'll ask Amber about these very, very interesting social media outlets in a second, in Amber's Research minute.

                        Welcome to the show, Amber.

Amber:            Thank you, Michelle.

Michelle:            Do you know what YickYak is?

Alyssa:            Not to put you on the spot or anything.

Amber:            I do not. I missed the top of the podcast.

Michelle:            We feel like there's a line at age 25. Everyone above it has no idea what YickYak is and doesn't understand how it's used.

Amber:            Oh no.

Michelle:            We don't know what it is really either.

Alyssa:            We were discussing Millennials and technology and segwayed from a very interesting study on how they use it to solve problems to, what the heck is YickYak, which we do not know.

Amber:            Oh, and we do not know. We'll be googling that when we leave the room, I guess.

Michelle:            Possibly or we'll ask one of the interns [crosstalk 00:11:35].

Alyssa:            Using our digital literacy.

Michelle:            What we actually talked about at the top of the podcast was SNL 40th Anniversary. Do you have a favorite skit?

Amber:            Oh nice. Of course! It is "More Cowbell" is my favorite all time.

Alyssa:            Classic.

Michelle:            Yeah, that's everyone's. It's so good.

Alyssa:            It's really good but I'm going to go with the 2008 election coverage. I really am. I've reconsidered.

Michelle:            I just go with Dana Carvey, and everything he did [crosstalk 00:12:01].

Alyssa:            That's also fair.

Amber:            He's awesome. I know. He's awesome.

Michelle:            Yeah, I love that. All right, from SNL to ...

Amber:            Research Minute.

Michelle:            Why not? Perfect transition there.

Amber:            All right. We've got a new study out by Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which is MBAC-, MBAE, sorry about that, that compares the MCAS, which is the Massachusetts state test, and the PARCC, which is the new test coming out. They look at three indicators of college and career readiness. Here are their three indicators and their results.

                        Number one, does the test identify students who are college and career ready? The authors say no for MCAS, since it sets no bar for college and career readiness and its bar for proficient is very low compared to the SAT. They also say that Massachusetts does better overall than other states on NAPE, but they're still below the NAPE college preparedness benchmark, which was a little curious for me, but when you look at a footnote, it reveals not by much.

                        On the 2013 NAPE Grade 12, the MCAS average was 161. The NAPE college preparedness benchmark was 163, so kind of close. Authors say that the PARCC plans to establish a real college and career ready bar.

                        Number two, and I'll speed it up, does the test contain the right content to measure college and career readiness? Authors say MCAS consists of one ELA and math test administered in 10th grade and it's only designed to measure mastery of 10th grade standards, yet PARCC will test high schoolers in these three grades, 9, 10, 11. It's going to assess a broader and deeper array of content. It's going to have more application of skills and concepts and abstract reasoning, so on and so forth.

                        Number three, do the elementary and middle school tests provide good information about student progress towards college and career readiness. Authors say MCAS are a patchwork of tests. They are developed at different times, different purposes, different proficiency standards across the grades, don't appear to be equally rigorous. Yet PARCC has a consistent design, is developed with coherence across grades, so on and so forth.

                        Bottom line, the study was a little presumptuous. We don't have too much information about PARCC quite yet and in so doing, I think it was a little bit more flattering to PARCC than may be warranted at this time. It could have been a little bit more objective, but it did admit at the end that it was kind of like comparing apples and oranges, because the MCAS was not designed to be a college and career ready measure. There you have it.

Michelle:            I was going to say, that's a lot of PARCC love and you don't often hear PARCC love anymore.

Alyssa:            That sounds like an SNL skit.

Amber:            You do not. You do not.

Michelle:            Yeah, and ed reform SNL skit where exactly 500 people would find that interesting or be able to follow it.

Amber:            Yes. You know, I think, let's just be honest. There are people who want Massachusetts to use PARCC and there are people who do not want Massachusetts to use PARCC. This is grist for the mill, I think, in terms of getting people to think about the differences between the two and as our listeners know, Fordham is undergoing a study too, that's going to look at similar questions, in terms of comparing PARCC and Smarter Balance and ACT and MCAS. We're going to use the criteria for high quality assessments that the chiefs put out.

                        It's a totally different study but again, these are important questions. We just need to make sure that we have all the information at our disposal to be able to answer them. Unfortunately, these guys didn't have actual items from PARCC yet, which we'll have, which is important, but again, I think the point is, yes, tests are designed for different purposes.

Michelle:            That's the whole point of doing Common Core. Well, one of the points was to change the tests. No matter whether we or anyone else finds how PARCC and Smarter are, it will always be apples to oranges, because we changed something. That's the whole point. Fascinating.

Amber:            Yeah, it's fascinating. A lot of these groups that are going to come out, I think, as these tests roll out and there are these various factions that kind of think, "This is the direction we need to go." I'm all about more evaluation, more studies, more information, the better.

Alyssa:            Shocking better research. Vice President would say that.

Amber:            Yes.

Michelle:            It's like whenever I read any given research study, it's like, "And more research is needed on this." Someone once asked me if I thought every organization should have a communications person, and I wanted to be like, "Of course, I think I'm integral to our work here."

Alyssa:            At the same time, I do think as more evaluations come on board and as more people get farther down this path, having this information and keeping this conversation going is critical.

Amber:            Yes, that's right. I think this report brought out some broad level difference between them, but it was really hard to answer these three questions right without real data and real items and really digging in to these tests in a way that a report like this wasn't able to do.

Michelle:            I'm excited to see the differences between Smarter and PARCC.

Amber:            Yes.

Alyssa:            Yes.

Michelle:            That is ...

Amber:            Is what our study will look at.

Michelle:            Yes.

Amber:            Indeed.

Michelle:            All right. Thanks so much, Amber.

Amber:            Yes, ma'am.

Michelle:            That's all the time we have for this week's Gadfly Show. Till next week ...

Alyssa:            I'm Alyssa Schwenk.

Michelle:            And I'm Michelle Lerner for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.

Last week, writer Laura McKenna took to the Atlantic to try to understand why some suburban moms (yes, many of them white) have turned against the Common Core. She settles on misinformation as a driving force, which is certainly a factor. For example, if these parents understood that their own local schools still have complete control over curriculum and textbooks, perhaps they wouldn’t be so frustrated with standards set so far away.

But this is still an unsatisfactory answer. My own sense from watching this debate play out is that many of the “white suburban moms” who oppose Common Core also share a romantic, progressive view of education that is at odds with traditional schooling in general. We will never convince them of Common Core’s value, nor should we expect to. Instead, we should allow them to opt their kids out of traditional public schools and into schools (including charters) that are proudly progressive.

This conclusion is informed by a groundbreaking study we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published in 2013, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-Offs. Its major (and surprising) finding was that most parents actually want pretty much the same things from...

A report last month from a pair of advocacy organizations, the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years, argued that “there is a widespread belief that teaching children to read early will help them be better readers in the long-run,” but that there is “no scientific evidence that this is so.” The Washington Post and its Common Core-averse education blogger, Valerie Strauss, have been particularly aggressive in highlighting this report and running pieces from both parents and teachers arguing that “forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful.”

The report, titled Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose sounds an alarm over a perceived shift “from play-based, experiential approaches to more academic approaches” in early-childhood classrooms starting in the 1980s. “Under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS),” the authors claim, “the snowball has escalated into an avalanche which threatens to destroy appropriate and effective approaches to early education.”

The authors make much of the fact that no one involved with writing the standards was a K–3 teacher or early-childhood professional. The more important issue, however, isn’t who wrote it,...