Common Core’s Double Whammy

Published November 18, 2015

Some of the most reliable yardsticks in monitoring academic progress in K-12 education are the assessments known as the Nation’s Report Card, officially the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The results from its 2015 assessments are in, and they are not encouraging.

Perhaps the most interesting performance measure reported by NAEP is the percentage of students who have “passed” the criteria for grade-level performance. Looking at the national testing done on eighth grade students in the subjects of mathematics and reading, we can identify three eras of student performance:

  • 19701990 brought stagnation in NAEP math and reading proficiencies. Somewhat less than 30 percent of students were proficient in reading, and approximately 20 percent were proficient in mathematics. Performance levels did not improve over these two decades.
  • 19902013 was a period of modest but significant performance improvements, particularly in mathematics. It was also the period of the school choice reform movement and implementation. During those years we saw the introduction of school vouchers and public charter schools. By the end of this interval, NAEP testing revealed both mathematics and reading proficiencies had risen to about 35 percent. That trend has now abruptly stopped and reversed.
  • 20132015 is admittedly a short period, but NAEP proficiencies in both of these subjects have now dropped. Math proficiencies went from 35 percent to 33 percent, and reading proficiencies slid from 35 percent to 34 percent. This period of study coincides with the rollout of Common Core academic standards and their accompanying testing programs in many states.

The recent declines are not just statistical fluctuations, as we know from a statistical error analysis I and my colleagues at Asora Education Enterprises performed.

The skeptic might say, “Well, correlation does not prove much. You shouldn’t be so quick to blame Common Core.” That’s correct. We need more evidence if we are to confirm our suspicions.

So we looked at the NAEP results state by state. We grouped states according to their participation in Common Core. Did they formally adopt the standards without rescinding them? Did they participate in one or the other official Common Core testing consortia? After grouping the 50 states and District of Columbia accordingly, we found this:

  • Every grouping showed a drop in proficiencies.
  • In math, these declines were 0.5 percent worse for the Common Core states.
  • In reading, these declines were 1.0 percent worse for Common Core states.

How can we explain these results?

First, we must acknowledge these numbers are of the same order as the published statistical error rates involved. This means we do not yet have firm statistical proof of what we are about to say. However, we do have indications of an effect.

We see two correlations between Common Core and the witnessed degradation in performance: direct and indirect, a double whammy.

  • The direct effect of Common Core is attributed to actual changes in instructional practices within those states implementing some or all of the Common Core standards.
  • The indirect effect of Common Core is an informal one within nonparticipating states wherein some changes have been made “toward” Common Core without actual formal involvement.

What, then, can parents and other stakeholders of K12 education conclude from this?

What’s clearest is that Common Core has not brought any improvements in the important subjects of mathematics and reading. In fact, the presence of this unfortunate “experiment” correlates with performance degradation in both subjects.

Less clear, but likely, is the fact that states which have formally participated in Common Core have fared worse than those not doing so. And it appears the “infection” has spread to states not officially adopting and using these so-called standards.

Other scholars have criticized Common Core from a number of other perspectives. They note, for example, it violates federal law; the standards for mathematics are at odds with college expectations of student skills; the reading standards reduce student exposure to literary classics; and it reflects a clear progressive (leftward) perspective evident in the history standards.

Those of us who were skeptical of Common Core had strong theoretical arguments on which we based our negative views. Now we have numbers in confirmation.

Common Core is not yet dead. But it should be.

David Anderson is a senior fellow for education studies at the Heartland Institute.

[Originally published at the Washington Times]