A Common Core check-up: Not dead yet

Aided by a highly misleading New York Times article, the anti-Common Core crowd is pushing the narrative that Massachusetts’s recent testing decision (to use a blend of PARCC and its own assessment rather than go with PARCC alone) spells the end for the common standards effort. AEI’s Rick Hess and Jenn Hatfield called it a “bruising blow.” Bill Evers and Ze’ev Wurman described a testing system in “disarray.” Cato’s Neal McCluskey tweeted that Common Core is getting “crushed.”

It reminds me of my favorite Monty Python scene. I’m sorry, haters, but Common Core isn’t dead yet.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / Via here

First, let’s deal with Massachusetts, where the state board of education has decided to use a hybrid of PARCC and the Bay State’s own MCAS. In what must surely be a first, Commissioner Mitch Chester and Common Core opponent (and one-time senior associate commissioner) Sandra Stosky concur: This move is no repudiation of PARCC. As Chester wrote in a letter to the Times, “Neither my recommendation to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education nor the board’s Nov. 17 vote rejected PARCC or the Common Core. In fact, both embraced PARCC as part of the future of statewide assessment in Massachusetts.” As Stotsky tweeted, “It looks like a compromise between MCAS and PARCC, but it's really PARCC.”

Indeed, there’s every reason to believe that MCAS 2.0 is going to look much the same as PARCC 1.0. This is akin to a state dropping the “Common Core” label but keeping nearly all of the standards. It’s essentially a rebranding exercise undertaken for political reasons.

But let’s widen the lens and scan the bigger picture. Just how fragile is the Common Core effort today? Is a death watch warranted? Let’s look at its markers of health against five big aims:

  • Goal #1: To dramatically improve the English language arts and mathematics standards currently in place in the states. As we’ve argued since 2010, the Common Core standards are vast improvements over their predecessors in the great majority of states. They are admirably aligned with rigorous research (on early reading instruction, for example); explicit about the quality and complexity of reading and writing that should be expected of students every year; very solid on arithmetic as a clear priority in the elementary grades; ambitious in aiming for college and career readiness by the end of twelfth grade; and relatively jargon-free. Furthermore, they are still in place in every state that adopted them, save for Oklahoma and South Carolina. To be sure, plenty of states have dropped the name (like Indiana), added some standards (like Florida), or started review processes (like New York, Tennessee, and Louisiana). But outside of those two states, all of this activity has resulted in very little change—or tweaks that make the standards even better.
  • Goal #2: To significantly raise the quality of the reading, writing, and math tests in use throughout the country. Another big goal of the Common Core initiative was to help states make the shift to “next-generation” assessments—the kind that would encourage better teaching and learning in the classroom, tap the advantages of online testing, and remain faithful to the higher standards. In January, we at Fordham will announce the results of a major study of PARCC, Smarter Balanced, ACT Aspire, and MCAS, which will provide more evidence as to whether the new tests represent an improvement as promised. We already released preliminary results for PARCC and MCAS, finding the former to be significantly stronger than the latter (though notably, both tests were found to have “high quality items and a variety of item types”). This is saying a lot, since we reviewed MCAS precisely because it was widely considered to be a “best in class” state-level assessment. Of course, PARCC itself is down to just seven states—more politics at work—so it matters a lot whether Smarter Balanced (still with fourteen members in its consortium) is equally strong. It also matters whether the growing number of states trying to go it alone are capable of making stronger assessments. They might be; we simply won’t know until someone gets under the hood of those tests.
  • Goal #3: To align cut scores with college and career readiness so that parents and educators know whether students are on track for later success. This has surely been Common Core’s clearest victory to date. All fall, states have been announcing the results from last spring’s tests, and every state but one (Fordham’s beloved Ohio!) has reported much more honest proficiency rates. We know from the NAEP that between 35 and 40 percent of high school graduates are prepared for college in reading and math. State proficiency rates have been landing in that general vicinity. This is a huge improvement from the days of the “honesty gap,” when states regularly reported that upwards of 80 or 90 percent of their students were “proficient.” One worry here, though, is whether states are providing clear and honest reports to parents. They might gain inspiration from the District of Columbia’s approach, which is worth emulating.
  • Goal #4: To dramatically improve instruction in the classroom. This is really what it’s all about, right? And yet this is by far the hardest to measure. We have very little evidence about whether teachers are aligning their instruction to the Common Core standards (what we know isn’t very promising, especially with respect to reading), whether it’s working, or whether students are learning more as a result. To find out, we’d need a sophisticated, large-scale study that sent researchers into hundreds or thousands of classrooms to see what’s going on. (The Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction and Learning [C-SAIL] recently received a $10 million IES grant to launch such a study.) What we do know is that higher-quality curricular programs have been developed, and at least one—Eureka Math—is being widely used all across the country. And yet that’s pretty thin gruel; the classroom remains a black box—something that’s true for all manner of reform efforts.
  • Goal #5: To make interstate comparisons of performance more feasible. Finally, the “common” in “Common Core” was supposed to equip policymakers and policy wonks alike to compare schools and school systems nationwide. In my mind, that’s always been a “nice-to-have,” not a “must-have”; we still have NAEP to make comparisons between states, and PISA and TIMSS to benchmark U.S. performance against the world. I have surely argued that certain economies of scale would result from commonality—better curricular products and better assessments in particular. But comparability per se doesn’t matter that much except to us researchers and analysts. Still, it will be easier than in the past for psychometricians to compare schools across state lines, since cut scores are much closer to one another (and to NAEP) now. But with a majority of states using their own tests, it surely won’t be perfect.

So there you have it. The standards are still very much alive; cut scores are dramatically higher than ever; school-level comparability is largely a lost cause; and the quality of what matters the most—the tests and the classroom instruction—remains mostly unknown at present. A mixed picture for sure, but hardly a description of a patient ready for life support.

In the immortal words of the Bee Gees, Common Core is “stayin’ alive.”

Warner Music Group; Viacom International Inc. / Via GIFSoup.com

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.