Do States Weaken Their Standards By ‘Un-Adopting’ the Common Core? These Reviewers Think So.

By Brenda Iasevoli — August 22, 2018 6 min read
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The English/language arts and math standards in most states that “un-adopted” or made changes to the Common Core State Standards are, in the end, “substantially weaker,” according to a new report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. These states would have served students better by simply adopting the common core whole, the report says.

“When states tried to quote ‘revise’ the standards it was a pretty fraught and perilous activity in that the changes they made did more harm than good,” Amber Northern, senior vice president for research at Fordham Institute, said in an interview. “If you have the right expertise in place, it’s not that you can’t develop strong, or potentially even better, standards. But it’s the exception to the norm.”

The findings are not surprising, given Fordham’s longtime support for higher academic standards. The institute has reviewed states’ expectations many times over the years. It has also generally been a proponent of the common core, especially its focus on using challenging texts to build background knowledge.

The review homes in on those state standards that have made the biggest changes to the common core and those that never adopted them. (Stephen Sawchuk writes about a 2017 review by the Washington-based nonprofit Achieve that arrived at a slightly different emphasis: It found that 24 states’ revised standards actually preserved the most important features of the common core.) Ultimately, the Fordham reviewers chose 14 states for an ELA review and 10 states for a math review. Their aim is to call out mistakes to be avoided along with ideas worthy of wider adoption.

States’ English/Language Arts Standards

The reviewers gave the ELA Common Core State Standards a 9 out of 10, validating them as “strong” standards that states should continue to put into practice. The reviewers lauded the common core for providing specific guidance on what makes a “complex text,” how to measure its complexity, and how requirements need to develop as students move from one grade to the next. (Stephen Sawchuk details how the Common-Core reading and writing standards have shifted classroom practices.)

Seven of the 14 states’ ELA standards were deemed “good,” earning scores of 7 or 8. (See the chart below.) The raters conclude that Indiana’s standards in particular rose above the rest. The Hoosier state’s standards, according to the study, address reading and writing across disciplines, something that other state standards fail to do, and do a good job explaining how expectations should progress across grade levels.

Two states’ standards—those of Missouri and Virgina—were rated “inadequte” and in need of an immediate revamp. (Missouri had adopted the common core in 2010, and replaced them in 2016; Virginia never adopted them.)

Generally, “what our reviewers saw on the ELA side was an approach of subtraction,” said Northern. “It wasn’t that they added a bunch of stuff that made no sense, it was that they took out the stuff that made a lot of sense.”

Some states, Indiana among them, lost points for eliminating guidance on “grade-level texts” and what it means for a text to be sufficiently complex. Virgina doesn’t address text difficulty. New York and South Carolina expect students to read “grade-level” texts but do not describe what these texts should look like.

To address this problem, the reviewers suggest states include a list of model texts that demonstrate the level of complexity students should be able to tackle at each grade level. “If states could put these texts back in, it would do a lot for improving their overall grade,” said Northern.

ELA Trends

The reviewers, however, highlighted two positive ELA trends: 1) a greater emphasis on writing, and 2) the creation of standards dedicated to vocabulary development. Twelfth graders in Oklahoma, for instance, are expected to make informed claims in their writing and defend them against opposing claims using credible sources. In South Carolina, 4th and 5th graders are expected to figure out the meanings of unknown words from their Greek and Latin roots.

Among the failings noted, the reviewers said many state standards fail to show how reading, writing, and language extend beyond the English classroom. Kansas students must write “for a range of discipline-specific tasks” beginning in 3rd grade and pay attention to the “norms and conventions of the discipline” starting in high school, yet the standards provide no other guidance on how students might actually accomplish these goals.

Another big problem reviewers found was that there is no clear skill progression between grade levels in many state standards. Many states and even the common core for ELA combine standards for 9th and 10th grade and again for 11th and 12th grades, conflating four years of benchmarks to two.

States’ Math Standards

The math common-core standards and Texas’s math standards rated a 9 out of 10, meaning that the reviewers see them as “strong” standards that states should continue to put into practice. Both focus on arithmetic in grades K-5, with “a thorough treatment of place value and the standard algorithms, and a thoughtful approach to fractions.”

Northern points out that Texas never adopted the common core, went its own way, and ended up creating strong math standards. Reviewers, however, rated Texas ELA standards “weak.”

Three of the 10 state math standards evaluated (those of Indiana, Tennessee, and Virginia) were deemed “good,” earning scores of 7. (See the chart below.)

One state—Pennsylvania—earned an overall score of 4, meaning that its math standards are considered “inadequate” by reviewers’ standards and in need of a complete revamp.

Math Trends

Among the positive math trends noted, the reviewers saw a stronger focus in grades K-5 on arithmetic, which, they see as the foundation for much of the math that students will have to tackle in higher grades. The report notes that this was absolutely not the case in 2010 when “arithmetic was not a priority.” Most state standards, for instance, expect students to memorize single-digit addition and multiplication facts, as well as the related subtraction and division facts.

Even so, a few states were seen to fall short in that subject. Take Pennsylvania’s standards. By 2nd grade, they say, students are supposed to “use mental strategies to add and subtract within 20.” Yet students are never required to memorize the sums of two single-digit numbers, or to add and subtract “automatically” or “fluently” within 20, as the common core recommends. Five other states—including Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Virginia—make this “mistake,” according to the report.

Another trend that the report highlights: Standards are doing a better job of balancing between teaching students the difference between abstract concepts and procedures and actually putting them into practice. Most states now ask students to explain their reasoning after doing the computations for solving a math problem. And most state high school frameworks emphasize the connections between classroom math and statistics and everyday life.

“For the most part our reviewers were pretty pleased with what they saw on the math side,” said Northern. “When they pointed out weaknesses in the math standards, they were more exceptions to the rule. When there were issues, they were more state-specific, rather than across-the-board problems.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.