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Brookings Institute Presents a Different View of Common Core - Monday, February 20, 2012

Hear the Echoes No. 41


Brookings Institute Presents a Different View of Common Core



            The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education argues that the Common Core Standards that the Jindal administration is pushing into Louisiana public schools might not have the impact that advocates hope.


            In the report, Tom Lovlace lead author, says the Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement. The quality or rigor of state standards has been unrelated to state NAEP scores, Loveless finds. Moreover, most of the variation in NAEP scores lies within states, not between them. Whatever impact standards alone can have on reducing within-state differences should have already been felt by the standards that all states have had since 2003.


            Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Cores State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning.  That conclusion is based upon analyzing states’ past experience with standards and examination of several years of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).


            Data on the effects of those standards are analyzed to produce three findings. 1) The quality of state standards, as indicated by the well-known ratings from the Fordham Foundation, is not related to state achievement. 2) The rigor of state standards, as measured by how high states place the cut point for students to be deemed proficient, is also unrelated to achievement. Raising or lowering the cut point is related to achievement in fourth grade, but the effect is small, and the direction of causality (whether a change in cut point produces a change in test score

or vice versa) is difficult to determine. 3) The ability of standards to reduce variation in achievement, in other words to reduce differences in achievement, is also weak.


Achievement variation within states is now influenced by the state standards under which schools presently operate.  Anyone who follows NAEP scores knows that the difference between Massachusetts and Mississippi is quite large.  Every state has such a contrast within its own borders. 


The Fordham Institute made a point regarding state efforts to evaluate schools using fifty different assessments and fifty different definitions of what constitutes acceptable performance.   How can a school in one state be labeled a failure while a school in another state and with almost exactly the same test scores can be considered a success?


The authority to operate school systems is constitutionally vested in states.  But states have undermined their own credibility when it comes to measuring student learning.


            The Fordham Institute concluded that Common Core Standards are better than 37 states in English Language, and 39 states in math.  The assumption is that achievement will improve because students will study a better curriculum.  Perhaps in some states.


            The second assumption is that cut points on the new assessments will be set at a higher level than states now do on their own tests.     States routinely report more students attaining proficiency than NAEP indicates, often 30–40 percentage points more.  Do states set the bar too low?



These new standards are to be more rigorous than those currently used. Schools and students will respond by reaching for these loftier goals. Let’s call this the "rigorous performance standards” theory.


            Critics of the Common Core issued a "counter-manifesto” arguing that the proposed common standards would undermine the decentralized, federalist principles on which education has been governed since America’s founding. Declaring that a "one-size-fits-all, centrally controlled curriculum” does not make sense, the counter-manifesto states that only weak evidence supports the push for national standards. International test data are not helpful since most countries have national standards and the few that do not, including Canada and Germany, have both impressive and non-impressive scores.


            How much does raising the quality of standards matter in boosting student achievement?  Will raising the bar for attaining proficiency—in other words, increasing the rigor of performance standards—also raise achievement?


            Grover "Russ” Whitehurst, (former assistant secretary of education in the USDOE) investigated whether quality ratings for state standards, as judged by the two most cited ratings (from the American Federation of Teachers and Fordham Foundation), are correlated with state NAEP scores. Whitehurst found that they are not. States with weak content standards score about the same on NAEP as those with strong standards. The finding of no relationship held up whether NAEP scores from 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007, or the gains from 2000–2007 were used in the analysis. And it held up for the scores of both white and black students.


(This is an abridgment of a new report "The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education:  How Well Are American Students Learning?”   The Brown Center on Education Policy is associated with the private nonprofit Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.  The whole report can be accessed at


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