Recent national test scores showed decreases in student achievement at both the 4th and 8th grade levels.
Some have attempted to blame the Common Core State Standards for the drops in reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—however, as researchers often point out, the test scores themselves don’t offer explanations about causation.
But Tom Loveless, a researcher with the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center for Education Policy, did a deeper dive into the NAEP data—which include teacher and student survey information as well as test scores—and he says there’s evidence that the common core has affected 4th and 8th graders in at least one measurable way: It’s got them reading more nonfiction.
The analysis shows the common core has altered classroom behaviors, Loveless said, which is a first step in linking the standards to the NAEP score changes.
As you may know, the common-core standards for English/language arts say that students should read more informational texts than they have traditionally done. In 4th grade, about half the texts students read should be fiction and half should be nonfiction, the standards say. By 8th grade, the balance should tip slightly toward more nonfiction.
This slice of the common-core standards has caused quite a bit of debate. Some language arts teachers say they’ve been forced to cut back on prized works of literature to meet the new bar. Defenders of the standards have said that’s a misinterpretation—noting that the nonfiction texts students read in social studies and science classes should also count toward the required percentages.
In any case, Loveless found that more teachers say they are now emphasizing nonfiction in their classes. “Fiction has long dominated reading instruction,” he wrote on the Brown Center Chalkboard. “That dominance appears to be waning.”
Loveless looked at the data NAEP collects through its questionnaires. Teachers were asked, among other things, to what extent they used fiction and nonfiction texts in reading/language arts classes. Loveless compared the recent results to previous years.
“After 2011, something seems to have happened, " Loveless writes. “I am more persuaded that common core influenced the recent shift towards nonfiction than I am that common core has significantly affected student achievement—for either good or ill.” (The standards were released in 2010 and most states adopted them within the year.) As always, he offers the caveat that “causality is difficult to confirm or to reject with NAEP data.”
Loveless said he plans to break this analysis down by state to see where the common core has most affected classroom practices. From there, he may be able to link changes in instruction to changes in achievement—and estimate the common core’s impact in different locations.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.