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‘Common Core’ Standards Earn a B From Think Tank

By Sean Cavanagh — October 08, 2009 3 min read
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A high-profile effort to establish common academic standards across states is far from complete, but an early blueprint has won a favorable review from a Washington think tank that has long supported standards-based accountability.

A draft of the multistate, “Common Core” standards earned a B grade in both language arts and math from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a higher mark than those given to some prominent national and international standards documents.

The Fordham Institute, in a report issued today, judged various standards on two point scales, for “content and rigor” and “clarity and specificity.” Fordham’s review, like some of its other, previous evaluations of state standards, was based on analyses by a handful of reviewers the organization considers to be experts in English/language arts and mathematics. Fordham’s past reviews have found many states’ standards to be wanting.

“The Common Core standards are on the right track,” said Amber M. Winkler, the research director for the Fordham Institute, which supports national standards. Fordham sought “to build on some of the criteria we’ve already used,” she said, in judging standards by common benchmarks.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which are leading the Common Core endeavor, have so far released draft standards for college- and career-readiness in math and language arts, which are open for public comment until Oct. 21. The drafting of standards for grades K-12 are expected to follow.

Forty-eight states have agreed to take part in the Common Core effort.

Fordham calls the Common Core math standards “simple and clear,” although it says the authors could have done more to prioritize important math topics. The English section is also deemed “praiseworthy,” though the reviewers say the value of those standards will depend on states’ willingness to supplement them with curricular materials that help teachers “instill not just useful skills, but also imagination, wonder, and a deep appreciation for our literary heritage.”

The reviewers’ opinion of other well-known standards is more mixed. The reading and writing framework, or testing blueprint, of the National Assessment of Educational Progress earned a B, but the NAEP math framework received a C. The math framework of the Trends in International Math and Science Study, or TIMSS, which is used for country-by-country comparisons, received an A, the highest grade of any document.

Four-Person Review

Both the reading and math frameworks for another international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, on the other hand, received a D. Unlike TIMSS, which is heavily based on curriculum, PISA places an emphasis on students’ problem-solving skills. Fordham argues that both of the PISA test standards lack specificity and are overly “vague” on content, Ms. Winkler noted.

Fordham asked four people to review the documents. Richard Askey, a professor emeritus of math at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a former math adviser to the U.S. Department of Education, examined the math standards. Sheila Byrd Carmichael, a former English teacher in the District of Columbia who is a former deputy executive director of the California Academic Standards Commission, and Carol Jago, the incoming president of the National Council of Teachers of English, looked at the English/language arts documents.

Dane Linn, the director of the education division at NGA’s Center for Best Practices, said that Fordham and other outside analyses of Common Core were “very helpful” as the standards authors refine the document. He agreed with Fordham’s view that the language arts standards would need to be girded with additional input from the states.

“Setting high standards is only one piece of the puzzle,” said Mr. Linn, noting that additional curriculum and instructional materials and professional development would be crucial to the multistate project.

In the coming year, Fordham also plans to review standards documents crafted by ACT Inc., of Iowa City, Iowa, and the New York City-based College Board, two testing and college-preparation organizations whose materials have been cited in the Common Core document, Ms. Winkler said.

Gary W. Phillips, a vice president and chief scientist at the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, said he thought the review was useful, though somewhat incomplete, given that only a few outside observers did the work.

“This is a good start at evaluating the various sets of content standards that are currently being used as blueprints for large-scale assessments,” he wrote in an e-mail. “However, it is only a start.”

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