The perils of revising the Common Core

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For the first decade of Fordham’s existence, starting in 1997, reviewing state academic standards was our bread and butter, but the pattern always seemed to be the same: A few states had done a commendable job of identifying the knowledge and skills—grade by grade—that their students needed to master to be on track for success after high school. But most state standards were horrendous—poorly written, disorganized, incomplete, and replete with dubious ideas. All that began to change in 2010, when we reviewed the final drafts of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Our State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010 found that the CCSS were clearer and more rigorous than the English language arts (ELA) standards in thirty-seven states and stronger than the math standards in thirty-nine. Naturally, we encouraged those states to adopt the CCSS instead of starting from scratch.

But as readers know, by 2013 the country was engulfed in a full-fledged culture war over the Common Core, with a loose coalition of populist conservatives teaming up with educational progressives in a push to dump the standards and vanquish testing. Some states responded by “un-adopting” the Common Core; others tweaked, renamed, or rebranded them. In the end, the Common Core, as reviewed (and lauded) by us, was not very common.

So we find ourselves, once again, commissioning reviews of state ELA and math standards. The result is our new report, The State of State Standards Post-Common Core.

This turned out to be worth doing because even the most steadfast states have room for improvement. No matter how good they are, every state’s academic standards need to be updated periodically to reflect the latest advances in content and pedagogy, as well as lessons learned during their implementation. So the overarching goal of the present report is to provide helpful guidance to states as they look to update and improve their standards in the years ahead.

Because many states retained the Common Core (or a variant thereof), this report—unlike our previous state-standards reviews—does not formally review standards in all fifty states. Instead, it focuses on the states that have made the most substantive changes to the Common Core ELA and math standards, as well as those that never adopted them. In ELA, that led us to fourteen states; in math, to ten. By taking a close look at their current standards, plus a fresh look at the CCSS, we seek to identify those changes and ideas that are worthy of broader adoption, as well as mistakes to avoid.

With those ends in mind, we assembled two teams of highly respected subject-matter experts—one for ELA and one for math—with deep knowledge of the content standards in their respective fields. The teams worked independently, so their paths inevitably diverged, and we advise against comparisons between or across the two subjects. Ultimately, what matters most is where states go from here—and what they do with the information and recommendations in the report.

We assessed standards on a ten-point scale and assigned each set one of four labels: strong, good, weak, or inadequate. For the most part, we reviewed the officially adopted state standards and didn’t include supplemental documents that may accompany them. Although the latter may be quite helpful to teachers, they typically run hundreds of pages and include innumerable links, making it impossible to review them in sufficient detail.

In the end, no set of ELA or math standards received a perfect score, but the Common Core earned 9 out of 10 in each subject, reflecting the consensus among our reviewers that they are still a generally “strong” set of standards that states can and should continue to implement.

Texas, a “never-adopter” of CCSS, also had math standards deemed “strong.” Another three states—Indiana, Tennessee, and Virginia—earned “good” ratings in that subject. Seven did the same in ELA: Indiana, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Of the standards in this latter group, our reviewers found Indiana’s to be particularly praiseworthy.

Further down the spectrum, five states earned overall scores of 5 or 6 in math or ELA, and were thus deemed to have “weak” standards: Minnesota, North Carolina, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma for math; Arizona, South Carolina, Texas, Nebraska, and Tennessee for English language arts. Our reviewers recommend that these standards be significantly revised before educators and policymakers devote any more effort to their implementation. At the bottom, our reviewers judged Pennsylvania’s math standards “inadequate,” and reached the same conclusion for Missouri’s and Virginia’s ELA benchmarks. All three need a thorough overhaul.

After completing their reviews, our subject-matter experts identified positive and negative state trends in both subjects.

In reading, more states are prioritizing writing, including foundational writing skills such as printing, keyboarding, phonics, and spelling, and also emphasizing vocabulary development. Yet these positive developments are partially overshadowed by numerous persistent failings. For example, states have engaged in a marked retreat from rigorous quantitative and qualitative expectations for reading and for text complexity, a development that leaves educators in the dark about what types of texts students should be reading, and at what levels. And there’s a worrisome lack of standards showing how literacy skills extend beyond the English classroom into other disciplines such as history, science, and mathematics.

In math, reviewers identified several positive trends in state standards, all of them at least partly attributable to the enduring influence of the CCSS-M. There is, for instance, a stronger focus on arithmetic in grades K–5, more coherent treatment of key topics in middle school (including rates, ratios, and slope), and more appropriate balance among conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and application.

All good. Yet, as indicated by the low scores that some states’ math standards received, there are exceptions to these trends. For example, some states do not explicitly require students to know their addition and multiplication facts from memory, while others make no mention of proficiency in the standard algorithms for the four major operations. Similarly, some states still have incoherent (or semi-coherent) middle school progressions that fail to make necessary connections between interrelated standards and topics.

The report offers specific recommendations for each state that was reviewed, as well as general advice, depending on whether a state kept the Common Core standards (or a close facsimile), or whether it markedly diverged or abstained from them. The former group tends to have stronger standards, and we recommend that they do three things going forward. First, focus on implementation, including subject-specific professional development. Second, undertake to address (carefully!) Common Core’s particular limitations in math and English language arts. And third, consider adopting specific enhancements that other states have made. California, for example, reorganized its high school math standards to be more concise and user-friendly. And Massachusetts added numerous examples in both subjects, making the standards easier to interpret.

For those states that made the most significant changes to the CCSS (or never adopted them), in nearly every case the simplest “fix” would be to adopt (or re-adopt) the Common Core. But because there’s little point in re-litigating that case, the individual reviews meet these states halfway by describing specific changes they could make to address the weaknesses in their current standards.

Our reviewers, as well as those of us at Fordham, believe that the Common Core standards have aged well. Still, we must remember that standards are only words on paper if they don’t inspire stellar instruction in the classroom. On that front, there is clearly much more to be done, as we have learned from various implementation studies, including Fordham’s own Reading and Writing in America’s Schools, published last month.

Confusion still reigns in too many places: Do the standards expect young students to learn history, science, and other subjects in order to become better readers? (Yes.) Do they require high school English teachers to ditch classic works of literature? (No.) Do they want young children to master their math facts? (Yes.)

The standards, we believe, are clear and on target, on these and other important points. But something is getting lost in translation. Fixing that problem is as urgent as ever.

 
 
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.