Address Common Core’s shortcomings, don’t start from scratch

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where I work, has been tracking and evaluating state standards for over 20 years. One important lesson gleaned over this time is that the vast majority of states, especially when going it alone, have not managed to get academic standards right. If Idaho is to be an exception, it will need to take this challenge seriously.

When we at Fordham first started reviewing state standards in the late 1990s, most fell far short. Back then, for example, many states refused to embrace the science of early reading instruction. Many embraced fashionable but faulty approaches to teaching math, downplaying the importance of young students learning how to compute, and even encouraging the use of calculators as early as the second grade. When it came to literature, many states offered no specificity about books, authors, or even genres to be read. Most state standards were inscrutable, incomprehensible, and incomplete.

As a result, the functional standards for what students should know and be able to do were what was included on state tests. That’s what educators paid attention to and that’s where they could see what was required of students, grade by grade. Unfortunately, those tests were set at a very low level. At the time, it was common for upwards of 80% of students to pass state tests, even though the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that only 20 to 40% of students in a given state were actually proficient.

The Common Core State Standards, introduced in 2010, aimed to repair some of these problems. The hope was to create academic standards that were clear, coherent, and challenging, and to complement them with a new generation of tests aligned to these more rigorous standards.

On the English language arts side, for example, the Common Core embraced scientifically-based reading instruction, including phonics and phonemic awareness. On the math side, they had a heavy dose of expectations around computational accuracy in the early grades, expected kids to know their math facts and times tables, and rejected the use of calculators.

No, the Common Core standards weren’t perfect. While a list of suggested readings was mentioned (and was quite solid), it was just an appendix. The math standards also fell short for high achieving students ready for advanced mathematics.

Fast forward to today. Idaho is considering replacing its 2010 state standards with something new. I have several trepidations. First, we are in the middle of a terrible pandemic, and educators are dealing with enough difficulties that adding new standards to the mix seems ill-timed. Second, there are significant costs associated with rewriting academic standards, developing and procuring tests and curricular materials aligned to them, and retraining teachers. At a time when many school districts across Idaho are facing significant budget challenges, these are big ticket items that will surely make fiscal matters worse. Rather than switch horses midstream, it would be wise to focus energy on helping teachers and schools adopt high-quality curricular materials and learn how to use them effectively.

But third, and perhaps most importantly, there’s a real risk that Idaho might end up with worse standards than it has now, as is the case for many states that have attempted to replace the Common Core standards to date.

Several advocates have suggested looking to Florida’s new B.E.S.T. standards, which we at Fordham recently reviewed. They are certainly worth considering, especially in English language arts, where we found the Sunshine State’s standards to be strong but incomplete. For example, though research indicates “a significant relationship between listening comprehension and proficient reading,” Florida’s standards include very little on the importance of students learning how to be good listeners or participate in a discussion.

Florida’s attempt at revising its math standards, on the other hand, was far more flawed. Perhaps in an attempt to correct for the perception that the Common Core standards have insufficient focus on arithmetic and basic math facts, Florida ended up stripping out almost all standards building students’ conceptual understanding of mathematics. To be sure, students should be able to compute accurately and know math facts, especially in the early grades. But as they get older, we need to start preparing them for algebra and other more conceptual domains. Florida’s math standards also have issues relative to how they cover place value in the elementary grades, and contain multiple technical errors.

In short, Idaho would do far better to look to states such as Massachusetts and California, which have improved upon the Common Core through straightforward additions and clarifications, rather than those that have attempted a complete overhaul of existing standards.

Michael J. Petrilli

About Michael J. Petrilli

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

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