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Standards Opinion

Common-Core Validation Committee Non-Signer Dylan Wiliam Shares a Couple Thoughts

By Rick Hess — September 15, 2014 4 min read
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The other week, I wrote a column flagging what I deemed to be five “half-truths” that have been repeatedly offered up by Common Core advocates. I was curious whether advocates could convince me that my concerns were baseless. On that score, the response was less compelling than I would’ve hoped. Several advocates eschewed the substantive points and simply declared that I’d become “anti-Common Core.” My friend Mike Petrilli responded with a flurry of questions that seemed to essentially concede my criticisms, but charge that existing standards are plagued by the same shortcomings. Mike’s right about that, of course, though the point is that advocates for other standards haven’t promoted them as “evidence-based” or suggested they ought to be adopted on a national scale.

In any event, one of the more interesting responses I received was from my friend Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London; former senior research director at ETS; and author of Embedded Formative Assessment. Dylan was one of the 29 members of the Common Core Validation Committee and one of the five who refused to sign off on the standards. I asked if I could share his note, and Dylan gave his okay. It’s worth noting that Dylan remains bullish on the Common Core. He writes, “To re-iterate, I think the Common Core State Standards are our best shot at creating an education system that meets the challenges of the 21st century. I am frankly appalled at the level of much of the debate, so if you think this can help, by all means share it.”

Despite his support for the enterprise, Dylan also made it clear that he thinks some of the claims made for the Common Core are problematic. Here’s what he had to say:

Reading your AEI blog today, I can’t remember if I ever shared with you my experience of being on the validation panel for the Common Core. You may have heard that I, along with Barry McGaw, James Milgram, Sandra Stotsky and I think at least one other, refused to validate the standards. Over the last few years, I have explained my reasons for my decision to anyone who asks, but I have made no public pronouncement, because I thought it would not be helpful in terms of the general debate...However, given your blog today, I thought you might be interested in why I declined to validate the standards.

On May 25, 2010, [then-director of education policy for the National Governors Association] Dane Linn wrote to all members of the Validation Committee asking them to review the final drafts of the standards and asking for a straight up or down vote by May 31st, as to whether each us would validate the standards. We were told that validating the proposals meant that we were agreeing that the standards were:

1) Reflective of the core knowledge and skills in ELA and mathematics that students need to be college- and career-ready
2) Appropriate in terms of their level of clarity and specificity
3) Comparable to the expectations of other leading nations
4) Informed by available research or evidence
5) The result of processes that reflect best practices for standards development
6) A solid starting point for adoption of cross state common core standards
7) A sound basis for eventual development of standards-based assessments

Here is what I sent to the CCSSO in reply:

Dear Dr. Gayler,

I have been wrestling with this for the last couple of days.

I can agree with statements 1, 6 and 7. I can persuade myself that statements 4 and 5 are just about OK (although it’s a stretch). However, I cannot in all conscience, endorse statements 2 and 3. The standards are, in my view, much more detailed, and, as Jim Milgram has pointed out, are in important respects less demanding, than the standards of the leading nations. For this reason, while I can see there are strong political reasons for securing consensus, and while I can see that they are the best that we can get at this stage, I am unable to agree to “sign off” on the standards if doing so is taken to be assent to all 7 propositions.

Basically, I felt that there were still too many risks in terms of what Jim Popham once called “criterion-referenced hyperspecification.” I think there is also a real tension between pitching the standards at college-readiness (which is fine) and saying that they are comparable to the world’s leading nations in mathematics when many countries are much more demanding at college entry, because they recruit a smaller proportion of the population. I was prepared to support the proposals, but when Dane Linn wanted adherence to each of the seven statements, I felt he went too far.

On your second half-truth, it is of course silly to claim the standards are evidence-based. They are choices about curriculum, and no amount of evidence can shed any light on whether we should study Shakespeare or Dickens.

As for the third half-truth, I don’t know if you know the work being done by Marc Tucker’s NCEE group developing Board Examination Systems (I am on the Technical Advisory Committee). For the first time, we know what students actually need to know to be college-ready, and it’s nothing like what most people think!

With all best wishes,


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