Standards-Based Reforms

Nationally and in Ohio, we press for the full suite of standards-based reforms across the academic curriculum and throughout the K–12 system, including (but not limited to) careful implementation of the Common Core standards (CCSS) for English language arts (ELA) and mathematics as well as rigorous, aligned state assessments and forceful accountability mechanisms at every level.


Our many standards-based blog posts are listed below.

Fordham’s experts on standards-based reforms:

In 2010, when the final Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were unveiled, our content experts found them worthy of praise, awarding the math standards an A-minus and the English language arts standards a B-plus. That meant that CCSS was “clearly superior” to the standards in the vast majority of states—and that the vast majority of American children would be better off if their schools taught them the content and skills they set forth.

Since then, we’ve remained steadfast in our belief that the standards, if adequately implemented and supported, could improve the educational trajectories and life prospects of all students. Yet our earnest, unequivocal support of the CCSS does not mean that we’re wearing rose-colored glasses. In fact, we’ve not been shy at all about exposing implementation warts over the last six years.

Our latest study, Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey, also doesn’t pull any punches. It seeks to offer relevant, honest, and—we hope—practical findings on CCSS implementation. We examined whether teachers responsible for elementary and middle school math instruction in Common Core states have changed what and how they teach—and whether they’re seeing improvements in students’ math understanding as a result. (This...

In Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher SurveyJennifer Bay Williams, Ann Duffett, and David Griffith take a close look at how educators are implementing the Common Core math standards in classrooms across the nation. A nationally representative survey of over one thousand teachers reveals that they are increasingly familiar with the Common Core and believe that it will benefit students. Yet our findings also point to several areas that warrant mid-course corrections if we’re going to fulfill the standards’ more rigorous expectations.

Here are a few key takeaways: 

  1. Teachers like the Common Core but they don’t think all of their students and parents are equally enamored. Most teachers view the standards positively, believing that they will enhance their students’ math skills and prepare them for college and beyond. But they add that students’ and parents’ views are considerably less rosy. Some of their students have “math anxiety,” they say, and 85 percent believe that “reinforcement of math learning at home is declining because parents don’t understand the way that math is being taught.”
  2. Teachers know what’s in the Common Core—and they’re teaching it at the appropriate grade level. Though it may seem unsurprising,
  3. ...

In this survey, ACT asked thousands of K–12 teachers, college instructors, and workforce supervisors and employees about their views on current educational practices and “college and career readiness expectations.” According to ACT, these expectations rightly include not only “core academic skills” in English, reading, mathematics, and science, but also “cross-cutting capabilities” like technological literacy and collaborative problem solving, “behavioral skills” related to self-regulation, and “education and career navigation skills.” (No one could accuse the organization of having a narrow perspective.)

Overall, survey respondents identified “acting honestly” and “sustaining effort” as the most important “non-academic characteristics” for young people to develop. And in a separate set of questions, “content knowledge” and “conscientiousness” were ranked highly by every group, from elementary school teachers to workplace supervisors. However, two skill areas were ranked highly only by workforce respondents: technology (by employees) and collaboration with peers (by supervisors).

Based on these results, the authors recommend that state and local education agencies track the development of students’ non-academic skills and incorporate them into instruction. They also suggest that states and districts invest in technology training for teachers. Both suggestions might be sensible in a world of perfect information and implementation, but as matters stand, they...

My friend Tom Loveless is right about most things, and he’s certainly right that scoring “proficient” on NAEP has nothing to do with being “on grade level.” He’s also right that Campbell Brown missed this point.

But Tom, alas, is quite wrong about the value of NAEP’s trio of “achievement levels” (basic, proficient, advanced). And he’s worse than wrong to get into any sort of defense of “grade level,” as if that concept had any valid meaning or true value for education reform.

In his words, Tom’s post sought “to convince readers of two things: One, proficient on NAEP does not mean grade-level performance. It’s significantly above that. Two, using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.”

We agree on the first point, not on the second—and not on his implicit argument that there is merit in basing education policy on “grade-level” thinking.

Unless one is talking about academic standards—Common Core or otherwise—or about the cut scores on high-stakes, end-of-year, criterion-referenced exams like PARCC and Smarter Balanced, “grade level” has no meaning at all. It’s a misnomer that we adopted during decades of using norm-referenced tests. These were “normed” such that the average...

  • Education reformers are right to prioritize the closing of “achievement gaps”—the disparities in academic outcomes separating comparatively advantaged (and primarily white) students from their low-income and minority peers. But there’s such a thing as prosecuting the achievement gap beyond its proportion, as this Hechinger Report story on Kentucky schools illustrates. While surveying the state’s testing progress since its (propitiously early) adoption of the Common Core, author Luba Ostashevsky focuses heavily on the fact that white third graders have increased reading proficiency by twice the amount that their black classmates have (4 percent vs. 2 percent). It’s certainly true that we’d like to see those gains realized equitably, but it’s also worth highlighting—and celebrating—the fact that both groups are doing better than they were previously. Regardless of their background, most elementary schoolers know enough math to understand that achievement isn’t a zero-sum proposition.
  • The political challenges around reform can be enough to make you pine for a benevolent education dictator to establish rigorous academic standards, ample choice in schooling, and unlimited recess for all. But put down that scepter, Jefe Duncan—most of the truly important policy decisions are still made at the state level, and that’s why it’s so
  • ...
  • At the same time we wrapped up our Wonkathon on parental choice under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews published a column on the new law’s implications for school accountability. With authority ostensibly withdrawn from the Department of Education, he wonders which measures—particularly non-academic ones—state-level officials will use to determine whether schools and districts doing right by their students. It’s a question that we originally asked in our accountability system design competition this February, yielding novel proposals for student satisfaction questionnaires, school climate surveys, and the tracking of chronic absenteeism, among others. Mathews’s take is no less rewarding.
  • Meanwhile, developments in Denver are also providing a real-time examination of issues we’ve been exploring this month in our national commentary. District officials there have unveiled a new, three-phase framework for initiating the shuttering of underperforming schools, echoing the recent debate between Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene on the utility—or futility—of relying on test data for closures. (Jay struck a deeply skeptical note on “distant authorities” using such information to overrule parental demand, while Mike was more bullish on what regulators can learn from test scores.)
  • ...
  • The heroic journalism of the Boston Globe in exposing pedophilia enabled by the Catholic Church was the focus of last year’s Oscar-winning Spotlight. Now the paper has trained its attention on New England preparatory schools, where some allegations of misconduct date back a half-century or more. Its survey of the claims is penetrating and comprehensive: Nearly seventy such schools have faced complaints of sexual harassment or abuse in the last twenty-five years, with accusations lodged by two hundred alleged victims. And we have no reason to believe that the exploitation is limited to private schools; as a 2004 literature synthesis undertaken by the Department of Education makes clear, sexual misconduct plagues schools across the country and in every sector.
  • At one point, forty-four states were affiliated with one of the two next-generation testing consortia (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) that arose with the widespread adoption of the Common Core. This spring, just twenty-one of those states will be administering the tests. Chalkbeat has published a thorough account of the political machinations that overtook the assessments, as well as the efforts of legislators to pull away from them. In dozens of states, what followed was chaos. Curricular experts were
  • ...

Editor's note: This post is the second in an ongoing discussion between Fordham's Mike Petrilli and the University of Arkansas's Jay Greene that seeks to answer this question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with test results? The first entry can be found here.

The prompt for this forum promised that we would explore “areas of agreement and disagreement.” I’m pleased, Jay (and not altogether surprised), to see that we share a lot of common ground. Let me start with that, then save what I see as our major dispute (what we can learn from reading and math scores) for another post.

I’m thrilled that you dismissed the extreme position of some libertarians, who argue that society should never override the choices of parents. You write:

I…do not mean to suggest that policy makers should never close a school or shutter a program in the face of parental demand. I’m just arguing that it should take a lot more than “bad” test scores to do that.

I agree entirely, and on...

Last week, the Department of Education released the 2015 Nation’s Report Card for twelfth graders. As with the fourth- and eighth-grade scores provided last fall, there was little to celebrate. In the core subjects of math and reading, average scores held firm at the same unimpressive level they’ve been at since 2009. The scores of low-performers—whether defined as the proportion of students “below Basic” or those in the bottom decile—actually declined for the first time in at least a decade.

There was one glimmer of good news: High-end reading scores (whether defined as the top decile or the percentage of students at NAEP’s “Advanced” level) rose by a statistically significant margin—the first time that’s happened since 1998. Indeed, this qualified as only the second such upward bump ever for high-end twelfth graders. (Since 1990, there has never been a statistically significant jump at the high end in math or science for high school seniors.)

Moreover, this year’s high-end reading gains occurred despite all other scores (average and low-end reading and math, as well as high-end math) being down or flat across all core subjects in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. That fact that is itself rather unusual. High-end fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores,...

A new, somewhat unsettling NBER working paper by Thomas Dee and colleagues examines the prevalence and implications of teachers tampering with student test scores on New York State Regents exams.

The analysts focus on exams taken between the 2003–04 and 2009–10 school years in New York City, which can be reliably linked to students. To qualify for a “local” diploma, the lowest degree available in New York, students entering high school before fall 2005 had to score at least a 55 on all five core Regents exams (English, Math, Science, U.S. History/Government, and Global History/Geography). In fall 2008, local diplomas were eliminated, and students were required to receive at least a 65 score on all five tests.

Up until 2012–13, Regents exams were graded by teachers from students’ own schools, and a policy was in place that required exams with scores just below the cutoff to be re-scored by the schools. The analysts document clear spikes around the cutoffs in an otherwise smooth test score distribution. In other words the scores immediately below the cutoffs appear less frequently than expected from a “well-behaved empirical distribution,” and the scores at or just above the cutoffs appear more frequently than expected, suggesting that scores just below...