Common Core Has Led to ‘Historic’ Drop in Achievement Scores, Study Finds

Published May 4, 2020

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has led to a “historic” drop in student achievement scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” a new study reports.

In the decade before the adoption of CCSS throughout most of the United States in 2013, mathematics and reading NAEP scores for both fourth and eighth grade were gradually increasing at a fairly steady rate, states The Common Core Debacle: Results from 2019 NAEP and Other Sources, published by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. This rate of growth had been occurring at roughly the same pace as it had been since before states began launching their own individual curriculum standards in the 1990s, writes author Theodor Rebarber, CEO of the nonprofit education organization Accountability Works.

Many involved in the education industry said they were dissatisfied with this pace of improvement, and they sought to remedy it by pushing states to drop their curriculum standards and adopt a single, national standard, which became Common Core. Promoted heavily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Obama administration, CCSS was touted as being necessary to improve U.S. academic competitiveness with other nations on international testing, raise NAEP results, lower the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers, and reduce the same gap between low- and high-income children.

Now, a decade after their adoption by most states and six years after their implementation, the Pioneer Institute report makes clear Common Core has had the opposite effect from what was promised. NAEP scores from 2013 to 2019, after the implementation of CCSS, have decreased by a “statistically significant” amount, the study found. Scores for both fourth and eighth grade in reading and math are down, with eighth grade scores decreasing at a rate nearly equal to their rate of growth before the implementation of Common Core.

Achievement Gap Widening

More frighteningly, the study observes, scores are falling sharpest for low-income, black, and Hispanic students.

“U.S. students at the top, the 90th percentile, have continued to make gradual improvements that generally maintain the pre-Common Core trend line, ultimately neither helped nor harmed,” Rebarber writes. “But the farther behind students were before Common Core, especially those at the 25th and 10th percentiles, the more significant the achievement decreases have been. These declines appear to have wiped out the gains that lower-performing students made in the decade prior to Common Core.”

The report also includes summary analyses for seven states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New York, chosen “mainly based on their size and geographic distribution.” All seven states performed worse on the NAEP after CCSS than they did in the decade prior to its adoption. In Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New York, students’ scores declined in math and reading in both fourth and eighth grade.

No Excuses

The report dismisses excuses proffered by opponents that claim these declines are not the fruit of CCSS and are instead attributable to other problems, such as inadequate public school funding or the impact of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. Rebarber notes per-pupil public school spending in the United States increased by 10.5 percent in constant dollars between the 2012-13 school year, before CCSS were adopted, and the 2018-19 school year, and is the second-highest among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

In addition, if the Great Recession were indeed a cause, Rebarber notes it would have shown up in score declines in 2008-09 and 2010-11, yet there was no decline. Scores also did not decline during the large recessions in 1980 and 1982, Rebarber notes.

‘A Monumental Error’

Rebarber recommends states fully repeal Common Core, but he says he realizes this will be a tall order, no matter how far scores decline, because the standards embody the “common curricular assumptions and conventional wisdom of the educational establishment.”

“It is human nature for those who supported a failed strategy to find it difficult to admit a monumental error,” Rebarber writes. “But our most vulnerable students are paying the steepest price for this particular error. After six years of digging this hole, the most fervent Common Core advocates seem to believe that we should continue to dig deeper. Instead, we must ensure that reason prevails and a different approach is considered.”