Study: Most Students Fail to Meet Common-Standards Bar

By Catherine Gewertz — December 06, 2010 6 min read
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Most students have far to go before they master the skills and knowledge outlined in the new common standards that have been adopted by all but seven states, concludes a report released today.

The study is the first to try to identify the ground that must be covered if states and school districts are going to hold their students to the new standards. It found that only one-third to one-half of the nation’s 11th graders are proficient in the content and skills that the common-core standards specify as necessary in mathematics and English/language arts for access to good jobs or success in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses.

ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit that produces one of the country’s two dominant college-entrance exams, performed the analysis by identifying items in the ACT exam that reflect specific skills or content in the new standards. As its sample, the ACT looked at some 257,000 high school juniors who took the exam as part of a statewide administration, to winnow out the tilt of a sample heavy with college-aspiring students.

Using that broad pool, the organization determined how students who score in the ACT’s “college ready” range performed on the items deemed reflective of common-core content. That created a proxy, or estimate, of the cutoff score all students must reach to be considered well prepared in those areas, said Scott Montgomery, an ACT assistant vice president who worked on the report.

The resulting profile is one of a student body largely unprepared for the common standards. The problem was worse in mathematics than in English/language arts, and worse for racial and ethnic minority students than for their white peers.

Within English/language arts, only 38 percent of 11th graders hit the proficient range in reading, and barely more than half reached it in writing and in language. Particular subsets of skills stood out as weaknesses: Only three in 10 proved themselves well-versed enough in conquering progressively more complex texts, and only a shade more demonstrated enough strength in their knowledge of language and vocabulary.

Science Literacy Weak

Of particular concern to ACT researchers—and common-core authors contacted by Education Week—was students’ weak performance in science literacy. Not even one-quarter of the students showed college-ready levels of skill in understanding scientific reading material. They showed more strength in reading literature, and in grappling with informational texts and social studies material, though proficiency levels in those areas still ranged only between 37 percent and 41 percent.

Common-Core Adoptions


SOURCE: Education Week

In math, only 37 percent of students showed proficiency in statistics and probability, and only four in 10 did so in functions. The weakest math area was number and quantity, where only 34 percent showed proficiency in skills considered foundational to later math study. ACT officials were troubled by students’ weaknesses on a set of items that reflect their prowess with “mathematical practices,” such as reasoning abstractly, modeling with math, and making sense of problems and persevering to solve them. Only one-third of students showed proficiency in those skills.

Both math and English showed minority students’ particular struggles with mastery. Only one in 10 African-American students, for instance, reached college-ready levels in reading and in the number and quantity area of math. Hispanic students consistently outperformed black students, but significantly trailed Caucasian peers. Results for Asian students were not broken out because there were too few in the sample size to facilitate that, ACT officials said.

Cynthia B. Schmeiser, the president of ACT’s education division, said that the study defines “clear areas of instructional deficiency” that states and districts can address as they reshape teaching and learning in response to the common standards.

“States need to know what their students’ achievement looks like relative to the common core,” she said in a conference call with reporters. “What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What can they focus on now and get a leg up to move forward with implementation?”

The report is a “baseline study” that “raises some real important issues for policymakers at the state level” as they gear up to implement the new standards, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which co-led the initiative to have state and private-sector experts collaborate in designing the standards.

Accordingly, the study’s authors offered detailed instructional recommendations to address the weaknesses pinpointed in the report. They suggested, for instance, that states funnel more energy into making sure students read progressively more complex texts as they go through school and that they develop stronger cross-disciplinary literacy skills. In math, schools should pay greater attention to building a strong foundation in early-grades number-and-quantity skills and beefing up students’ understanding of mathematical processes and practices, the report urges.

The authors advised states, as well, to ensure that teachers have sound professional development so they are prepared for the new standards and that they are provided with model lessons, good formative assessment strategies, and other tools for guiding instruction.

States must also recognize and prepare for the “significant shift” of moving to “fewer, clearer, higher” standards, which will “fundamentally reframe” expectations for students, the report says. Crucial to successful implementation, the authors said, is setting realistic goals and timelines for proficiency under the new standards.

“Rather than encouraging states and districts to adopt weakened definitions of college and career readiness, policymakers should improve current accountability systems so that schools embrace challenging yet realistic goals rooted in how well students demonstrate academic growth” in mastering the standards, the report says.

Assessment Issues

ACT officials, as well as outside experts, cautioned that while the study’s findings offer an instructive early portrait of students’ readiness for the standards, they must also be interpreted with caution because the analysis was done before any serious, widespread effort to teach to the new standards.

Additionally, no one yet knows the format and content of the assessments currently being designed for the common standards by groups of states. How those assessments take shape will be pivotal in making the curricular aims of the common standards meaningful, said W. James Popham, a professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Los Angeles who focuses on assessment.

“Any long-lasting educational decisions based on as-yet-unmeasured curricular aims should be made warily until we have goal-attainment assessments at hand,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Douglas J. McRae, a retired assessment expert based in Monterey, Calif., commended the ACT report for being the first to shed light on the gap between where students are and where they need to be under the new standards. The report pinpoints a key policy problem as well, he said, by suggesting that states adopt realistic goals and timelines for proficiency, thus avoiding the public-relations fallout that could result if unrealistic expectations aren’t met.

“The realistic thing to do is to adopt longer timelines than what may be politically possible,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Jason Zimba, one of the lead authors of the math section of the common standards, said he welcomed the study’s recommendation to focus on early-grades foundational math, which is typically “beneath the radar of state testing.”

And David Coleman, who co-led the writing of the English/language arts section, said the study confirms much of what the standards are meant to address: among other things, students’ struggles with such college-necessary skills as handling complex texts and mastering reading material in subjects like social studies and science.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week


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