Published Online: July 21, 2010
Includes correction(s): March 23, 2012

Common Standards Judged Better Than Most States'

The common academic-content standards that dozens of states are now adopting are better overall than 33 individual states’ standards, according to an analysis released today by a Washington research-and-advocacy group.

The standards meet or best the quality of every state’s current math guidelines and all but three sets of English/language-arts standards, the study finds. California and Indiana, as well as the District of Columbia, have higher-quality ELA standards than the common standards, according to the analysis.

To date, 25 states have adopted the common measures developed through the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which grew out of a state-led effort to align what students across the nation are learning.

“If they implement as well as adopt, kids in about three quarters of the states will clearly be better off than they are today,” said Checker Finn, Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which conducted the analysis. “The United States is approaching a set of agreed-upon national standards for a core of its K-12 curriculum, and I think that’s a healthy thing for the country.”

How States' Standards Compare

English Language Arts

CLEARLY SUPERIOR TO THE COMMON CORE
California A
District of Columbia A
Indiana A

TOO CLOSE TO CALL
Massachusetts | A-
Tennessee | A-
Texas | A-
Common Core | B+
Colorado | B+
Georgia | B+
Louisiana | B+
Oklahoma | B+
Virginia | B+
Alabama | B
Arizona | B
Florida | B

CLEARLY INFERIOR TO THE COMMON CORE
Hawaii | C
Idaho | C
Kansas | C
Maine | C
Maryland | C
Minnesota | C
Nevada | C
New Hampshire | C
New Jersey | C
New Mexico | C
New York | C
Ohio | C
Oregon | C
South Dakota | C
Utah | C
Washington | C
Arkansas | D
Connecticut | D
Illinois | D
Kentucky | D
Michigan | D
Mississippi | D
Missouri | D
North Carolina | D
North Dakota | D
Pennsylvania | D
Rhode Island | D
South Carolina | D
Vermont | D
West Virginia | D
Wisconsin | D
Wyoming | D
Alaska | F
Delaware | F
Iowa | F
Montana | F
Nebraska | F

Mathematics

CLEARLY SUPERIOR TO THE COMMON CORE
None

TOO CLOSE TO CALL
California | A
District of Columbia | A
Florida | A
Indiana | A
Washington | A
Common Core | A-
Georgia | A-
Michigan | A-
Utah | A-
Alabama | B+
Massachusetts | B+
Oklahoma | B+
Oregon | B+

CLEARLY INFERIOR TO THE COMMON CORE
Arizona | B
Delaware | B
Idaho | B
Minnesota | B
New York | B
West Virginia | B
Arkansas | C
Colorado | C
Hawaii | C
Iowa | C
Louisiana | C
Maine | C
Mississippi | C
Nebraska | C
Nevada | C
New Jersey | C
New Mexico | C
North Dakota | C
Ohio | C
South Carolina | C
South Dakota | C
Tennessee | C
Texas | C
Virginia | C
Alaska | D
Connecticut | D
Illinois | D
Kentucky | D
Maryland | D
Missouri | D
New Hampshire | D
North Carolina | D
Rhode Island | D
Kansas | F
Montana | F
Pennsylvania | F
Vermont | F
Wisconsin | F
Wyoming | F

The think tank’s analysis comes as a wave of states, including populous New York; the District of Columbia, which instituted new curricula over the past decade; and Massachusetts, famed for its highly regarded set of standards, this week consider adoption of the common academic-content standards.

Released in June, the common standards were organized and developed by two Washington-based groups representing states—the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—with the unofficial blessing of federal education officials. In contrast to the typically slow, deliberative process for updating content standards, states have by and large been quick to sign onto the standards since they win additional points in the federal Race to the Top competition for adopting them by Aug. 2. ("States Adopt Standards at Fast Clip," July 14, 2010.)

But Massachusetts officials have experienced vigorous opposition from some constituencies about their plans to adopt. Meanwhile, education leaders in Minnesota plan to hold off on adopting the CCSSI math standards, and Virginia officials say they don’t plan to adopt either the math or the ELA standards.

Two other states, Texas and Alaska, are not participating in the CCSSI.

Judgment Calls

For the Fordham Institute analysis, teams of reviewers analyzed sets of academic-content standards, as well as supplemental materials such as curriculum frameworks, from all 50 states. They then compared these to the CCSSI standards.

The term “standards” itself has historically proven to be fungible across the states, embodying everything from general statements of purpose to highly detailed instructional guidelines. Attempts to define just what constitutes high-quality standards have yielded disagreements, not just about content but about how it should be taught. ("Resurgent Debate, Familiar Themes," Quality Counts, Jan. 14, 2010.)

Mr. Finn acknowledged that the Fordham group’s review, like any review of standards, involves judgment calls about what students should know and be able to do. Its reviewers gave more points for highly specific standards focused on content rather than metacognitive “strategies” or skills, and for standards that are clear, well organized, and easy for teachers, students, and curriculum developers to use.

In math, reviewers valued a focus on mastering basic number operations rather than on using different algorithms, for instance. And in English/language arts, they looked for lists of specific texts, samples of student writing, and differentiated guidance for teaching fiction and non-fiction genres.

The ELA review team was led by Sheila Byrd Carmichael, a founding director of the American Diploma Project, and the math review was headed by W. Stephen Wilson, a professor of mathematics at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. The ADP is an initiative of Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit group that worked with the NGA and CCSSO to develop the common standards.

The reviewers graded states’ current standards on a one-to-10 scale, and compared those to ratings for the common standards, which earned a B-plus, or eight points, in ELA and an A-minus, or nine points, in math, from the institute’s reviewers.

A disparity of two points above or below the CCSSI mark garnered a state’s current standards the label of “clearly superior” or “clearly inferior” to the CCSSI. Disparities of a point or less were judged “too close to call.”

The institute judged that the CCSSI standards were roughly of the same level of rigor as the strongest math standards in the country and superior to the majority of states’ current standards.

In ELA, the Fordham group deemed the CCSSI standards better than or equivalent to 47 states’ current offerings, but weaker than the standards in California, Indiana, and the District of Columbia. Mr. Finn, however, said that the reviewers’ qualms about the CCSSI’s ELA standards were relatively minor. The group would have preferred more-specific guidance on how to teach aspects such as sub-genres of literature.

“This is not profound criticism,” he said. “It’s like saying it was a solid meal but the salad dressing wasn’t totally satisfactory.”

As for states’ own standards, the reviewers judged Alaska, Delaware, Iowa, Montana, and Nebraska as currently having the weakest ELA standards. Kansas, Montana, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming received the lowest ratings in math.

Possible Effects?

It was not immediately clear whether the analysis might affect the adoption of common standards in states in which officials have expressed concerns about their merits.

Though the CCSSI standards have support from Massachusetts’ education commissioner, Mitchell D. Chester, and its secretary of education, Paul Reville, the standards have faced strong opposition from other parties. They include state board of education member Sandra Stotsky, who earlier refused to sign off on a “validation” of the CCSSI.

The Fordham review considered the common standards to be about as strong as Massachusetts’ current, much-lauded guidelines. The Massachusetts Board of Education discussed the CCSSI standards yesterday and is scheduled to make its adoption decision today.

Meanwhile, other states that contend that their current standards and assessments are more rigorous than the CCSSI earned less-than-stellar scores on the Fordham review.

Minnesota officials don’t plan to adopt the CCSSI math standards, but the Fordham reviewers judged the state’s math standards as “clearly inferior” to the CCSSI, with a grade of B.

Related Blog

In a statement, Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren responded that the Fordham group’s criteria “advocates for a specificity in academic standards that generally is reserved for Minnesota school districts.”

She said that CCSSI math standards “did not meet our expectations,” but the state would review them again in the 2010-11 school year.

Virginia will not change its Standards of Learning, officials there have said. That state garnered a C grade for its math standards and a B-plus for its reading standards. A spokesman for the state did not immediately return a request for comment.

The chief of staff to Indiana Education Secretary Tony Bennett said his state's education department plans to recommend adoption of the CCSSI in August, despite the slightly higher rating for its current ELA standards.

The review shows that “there wasn’t an astronomical difference in quality,” said Todd Houston. “There’s a lot of benefit to the Common Core: the easy comparison in how states are doing, our leadership role in the assessment consortia [for developing aligned tests], and knowing that more resources and textbooks will be aligned.

“I think everyone in that top tier recognizes that this may be a bit awkward,” he added, “but not awkward enough to change our path.”

Vol. 29, Issue 37

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Virginia’s grade for English/language arts standards. The state’s grade in that category was B-plus.

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