Common Core

Why states are backing out on common standards and tests

The bloom is surely off the rose of Common Core, the new English and math standards pushed by Washington, D.C. education trade organizations and the Obama administration. In the last few months, a number of states have paused or de-funded implementation of the standards; others have pulled out of the consortia developing tests tied to them.

Charles Chieppo, left, and Jamie Gass.

In recent years, the Obama administration has made a number of federal goodies, such as Race to the Top grants and No Child Left Behind waivers, contingent on states’ adoption of Common Core standards and assessments. But now that Race to the Top money has been spent, states are belatedly taking a clear-eyed look at Common Core. High-performing states in particular won’t like what they see.

In a recent Boston Globe op-ed marking the 20th anniversary of the Massachusetts education reform law that triggered dramatic improvements in the performance of Bay State students, Tom Birmingham, one of the law’s principal authors, wrote: “the political vectors will all tend to push the new standards to a race to the middle … In implementing the Common Core, there will be natural pressure to set the national standards at levels that are realistically achievable by students in all states. This marks a retreat from Massachusetts’ current high standards.”

Birmingham, a Rhodes Scholar and former president of the Massachusetts Senate, may well be among the least calculating or self-serving people ever to have attained high elective office, but it doesn’t take Machiavelli to know how these politics are likely to play out.

Most high-performing states also had rigorous standards prior to Common Core. For them, the new standards represent a significant step down from the academic rigor that was the foundation of their success.

Compared to Massachusetts’ previous standards, Common Core reduces the amount of classic literature, poetry and drama taught in English classes by 60 percent. Goodbye Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and Edith Wharton.

In math, the new common standards delay the progression to all-important Algebra I—the gateway to higher math study—by two years. Stanford University emeritus mathematics professor James Milgram, the only academic mathematician on Common Core’s validation committee, refused to sign off on the final draft. Milgram described the standards as having “extremely serious failings” and reflecting “very low expectations.”

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The scores of U.S. students are already mediocre at best compared to their counterparts in other industrialized nations. It is a condition that could become permanent if scores in the highest-performing states revert to the mean. In contrast with their peers in other states, Massachusetts’ eighth-graders tied for best in the world in science in the 2007 Trends in International Math and Science Study.

Common Core poses a different problem for lower-performing states. In his Globe op-ed, Birmingham wrote that “for all its complexity, the Education Reform Act can be reduced, in essence, to two propositions: We will make a massive infusion of progressively distributed dollars into our public schools, and in return, we demand high standards and accountability from all education stakeholders.”

The massive infusion of new money is proving to be the Achilles’ heel for an increasing number of low-performing states that have adopted Common Core. A 2012 Pioneer Institute study estimated that transitioning to the new standards will cost states about $16 billion over seven years. Technology upgrades, new textbooks and instructional materials, and teacher training and support account for most of the expense.

The costs of implementing the standards, or costs associated with the two consortia of states developing assessments tied to Common Core, have caused a number of states to drop out. Within the last year, Alabama and Utah pulled out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. In recent weeks, Georgia and Oklahoma dropped out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium.

Meanwhile, state legislative leaders in Florida asked Tony Bennett, former state education commissioner, to withdraw from PARCC last month after determining that the new exams would double per-pupil testing costs. And Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania have put Common Core standards and testing on “pause” or frozen state funding for implementation.

When 45 states and the District of Columbia quickly adopted Common Core in their pursuit of federal largesse, it seemed the common standards and tests would take the country by storm. Fast-forward three years, and the nation is split between higher-performing states chafing at the prospect of less rigorous standards leading to declining student performance, and their lower-performing counterparts that are unwilling or unable to fund the transition to Common Core tests.

Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow, and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform, at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy think tank.

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