The Purpose And Potential Impact Of The Common Core

I think it makes sense to have clear, high standards for what students should know and be able to do, and so I am generally a supporter of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). That said, I’m not comfortable with the way CCSS is being advertised as a means for boosting student achievement (i.e., test scores), nor the frequency with which I have heard speculation about whether and when the CCSS will generate a “bump” in NAEP scores.

To be clear, I think it is plausible to argue that, to the degree that the new standards can help improve the coherence and breadth/depth of the content students must learn, they may lead to some improvement over the long term – for example, by minimizing the degree to which student mobility disrupts learning or by enabling the adoption of coherent learning progressions across grade levels. It remains to be seen whether the standards, as implemented, can be helpful in attaining these goals.

The standards themselves, after all, only discuss the level and kind of learning that students should be pursuing at a given point in their education. They do not say what particular content should be taught when (curricular frameworks), how it should be taught (instructional materials), who will be doing the teaching and with what professional development, or what resources will be made available to teachers and students. And these are the primary drivers of productivity improvements. Saying how high the bar should be raised (or what it should consist of) is important, but outcomes are determined by whether or not the tools are available with which to accomplish that raising. The purpose of having better or higher standards is just that – better or higher standards. If you're relying on immediate test-based gratification due solely to CCSS, you're confusing a road map with how to get to your destination.

Accordingly, the evidence on the relationship between standards and achievement is far from conclusive (see the CCSS chapter in this Brookings report by Tom Loveless). One big problem is that standards in the U.S. are normally set at the state level, which limits the power of analyses designed to isolate the impact of changing standards, particularly given that so many important policies, including curricula and curricular materials, vary widely between districts within the same state, and even between schools in the same district.

Moreover, since many states have still taken a pass on providing useful CCSS-aligned curriculum frameworks – and most of the new “CCSS-aligned” tests have been developed without regard to (or prior to) the curricular documents that do exist – any observed relationship between changing standards and student achievement may be due to alignment (or misalignment) between the standards, the curriculum, and the tests.

Still, sadly, anyone familiar with contemporary education policy debates can predict the coming debate. Over the next 5-10 years, there will be endless attempts to attribute observed achievement increases (unfortunately, usually cross-sectional, and usually measured by proficiency rates), or lack thereof, to whether or not states adopted the Common Core. In fact, this has already started among early adopter states, such as Kentucky.

Much of this discussion, like most attempts to use NAEP for policy arguments, will be little more than careless speculation, motivated largely by pre-existing opinions about the CCSS. Over the coming decade, it may be possible for researchers to begin trying to isolate the “Common Core effect,” for example by using variation in states’ implementation plans and timelines (and hopefully using alternative tests as the outcomes of interest). But expect this to be complicated, take some time, and lead to results that are less than conclusive. This is normally the case when it comes to huge, sweeping policies such as the CCLS (NCLB is another example). 

There is, however, a more fundamental problem here: Standards are not really meant to “boost achievement,” and all of this discussion implying otherwise is a distraction. Again, standards are designed to specify what students should know and be able to do at different levels, and, perhaps, to permit more accurate and realistic assessments of student performance at any given point in time. That’s incredibly important, but it sometimes gets lost in all the anticipation and speculation about test-based impacts.

I understand that, in today’s political environment, it is difficult to advocate for much of anything without the requisite promise of huge, immediate achievement effects, but the fact remains that the best reason to support the Common Core is simply to have better standards, not because there is going to be some immediate “pay out” in the form of scale score or proficiency points. And those supporters of the Common Core who imply otherwise should stop doing so.

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