The Test of the Common Core

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 6th, 2013

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post; a version also appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Common Core Watch.


Here’s the follow-up post to “Why I’m For the Common Core.” It explains why we should be leery of the forthcoming “core-aligned” tests—especially those in English Language Arts that people are rightly anxious about. These tests could endanger the promise of the Common Core. In recent years, the promise of NCLB for neediest students was vitiated when test-prep for reading-comprehension tests usurped the teaching of science, literature, history, civics, and the arts—the very subjects needed for good reading comprehension.

In a still earlier HuffPost blog, I wrote that if students learned science, literature, history, civics, and the arts, they would do very well on the new Common Core reading tests—whatever those tests turned out to be. To my distress, many teachers commented that no, they were still going to do test prep, as any sensible teacher should, because their job and income depended on their students’ scores on the reading tests.
The first thing I’d want to do if I were younger would be to launch an effective court challenge to value-added teacher evaluations on the basis of test scores in reading comprehension. The value-added approach to teacher evaluation in reading is unsound both technically and in its curriculum-narrowing effects. The connection between job ratings and tests in ELA has been a disaster for education.

The scholarly proponents of the value-added approach have sent me a set of technical studies. My analysis of them showed what anyone immersed in reading research would have predicted: The value-added data are modestly stable for math, but are fuzzy and unreliable for reading. It cannot be otherwise, because of the underlying realities. Math tests are based on the school curriculum. What a teacher does in the math classroom affects student test scores. But reading comprehension tests are not based on the school curriculum. (How could they be if there’s no set curriculum?) Rather, they are based on the general knowledge that students have gained over their life span from all sources—most of them outside the school. That’s why reading tests in the early grades are so reliably and unfairly correlated with parental education and income.

Since the results on reading comprehension tests are not chiefly based on what a teacher has done in a single school year, why would any sensible person try to judge teacher effectiveness by changes in reading comprehension scores in a single year? The whole project is unfair to teachers, ill-conceived, and educationally disastrous. The teacher-rating scheme has usurped huge amounts of teaching time in anxious test-prep. Paradoxically, the evidence shows that test-prep ceases to be effective after about six lessons. So most of that test-prep time is wasted even as test prep. It’s time in which teachers could be calmly pursuing real education—teaching students fascinating subjects in literature, history, civics, science and the arts, the general knowledge that is the true foundation of improved reading comprehension.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


The villains in this story are not the well-meaning economists who developed the value-added idea, but the inadequate theories of reading comprehension that have dominated the schools—mainly the unfounded theory that, when students reach a certain level of “reading skill,” they can read anything at that level. We know now that reading skill—especially in the early grades—varies wildly depending on the subject matter of the text or the test passages.

The Common Core-aligned tests of reading comprehension will naturally contain text passages and questions about those passages. To the extent such tests claim to assess “critical thinking” and “general” reading-comprehension skill, we should hold on to our wallets. They will be only rough indexes of reading ability—probably no better than the perfectly adequate and well-validated reading tests they mean to replace. To continue using them as hickory sticks will distract teachers from their real job of enhancing students’ general knowledge, and will encourage teachers to continue doing the wasteful sorts of unsuccessful skill exercises that so many classrooms have already been engaged in.

The solution to the test-prep conundrum is this: First, institute in every participating state the specific and coherent curriculum that the Common Core Standards explicitly call for. (It’s passing odd to introduce “Common Core” tests before there’s an actual core to be tested.) Then base the reading-test passages on those knowledge domains covered in the curriculum. That would not only be fairer to teachers and students, it would encourage interesting, substantive teaching and would over time induce a big uptick in students’ knowledge—and hence in their reading comprehension skills. That kind of test would be well worth prepping for.



  1. If the curriculum folks in every state listen to and follow Hirsch’s advice, and the Testing Consortia do the same, that will be great for both teachers and students. If not, and it seems quite unlikely that they will listen, the current destructive patterns of test prep and teacher evaluation will continue. I am not optimistic.

    Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — September 6, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

  2. Excellent post but I am not terribly sanguine about the implementation of Common Core. I am supportive of the Common Core but I don’t think we will see the kind of knowledge building curriculum that the Common Core calls for and students need. We will likely see the same test-prep, skills heavy instruction we have seen for the past decade. It seems many decision-makers in education erroneously believe that one can directly teach these standards, or they don’t understand the difference between standards and curriculum.There also seems to be a strong push for “21st century skills” which, in my opinion, have the potential to make education even worse. Proponents of “21st century skills” often disparage knowledge, the reading of books, and any form of teacher-directed instruction. Many so called groups advocating these 21st century skills are merely anti-intellectuals with a new title. I hope I am wrong.

    Comment by KP — September 6, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  3. Everything KP said seems to be happening in my district. Our administrators bought copies of “How to Teach Thinking Skills Within the Common Core: 7 Key Student Proficiencies of the New National Standards” by Bellanca and Fogarty for the whole staff. They’re using it as their Bible for Common Core implementation. The book identifies a bunch of thinking skills mentioned in the Common Core standards (“compare and contrast”, “determine”), then proceeds to map out detailed plans for teaching each skill. Following these plans would result in the most hideous, arid, useless teaching I can ever imagine. For each skill the authors invent four or five metacognitve strategies to deploy that will allegedly hone the skill, as well as an acronym (e.g. A.L.I.K.E.) to help us remember the strategies. There are well over a dozen such acronyms that we’re supposed to teach kids, but memorizing even one is difficult because the strategies are wordy and obscure. I don’t even know what most of them mean –its verbiage without clear meaning, and certainly without any evidence that they work. What is clear to me is that the authors pulled this stuff straight out of their butts to fill the pages of this quick-to-market book. Alas, it’s not at all apparent to my colleagues many of whom seem to credit the authors with some sort of authority. One chapter talks about how “determine” is mentioned very frequently in the standards and then proceeds to map out how to give kids the capacity to determine –as if, after the completing the unit, a kid will possess the God-like power of determining anything at all–from the moral of Captain Underpants to the proper response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Almost every line in this pathetic book is a howler.

    I’ve sat down with administrators and tried to make the case that the book is not credible, and that content, not skills, should be central too our CC implementation strategy; but you can see the panicky look in their eyes when you suggest doing anything that can’t be readily and easily linked to questions on the Smarter Balanced tests. I’ll keep trying, but I feel like Don Quixote.

    Another tack the administration is taking is telling us that the Common Core can be boiled down to teaching the 5 C’s: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking…I forget the last two). These seem to bear the mark of the 21st Century Skills movement.

    Comment by Ponderosa — September 7, 2013 @ 10:41 am

  4. Ponderosa-

    usually it’s the 4Cs from 21st century Learning and P21. The one you are missing is communication but it is John Dewey’s definition.

    Remember the 21st century skills movement is global. When it became a lightning rod in US it set up shop in Melbourne, Australia in 2010 as ATC21S. Pearson is involved as is UNESCO and the OECD and the US. We have the Gates Foundation funding curricula and assessments and the effective teacher paradigm here while Intel, MS, and Cisco are formally the lead sponsors of ATC21S.

    All of my research shows the 21st century skills coupled to social and emotional learning under the Positive School Climate mandate coming from every direction dominates what can come to the classroom.

    Plus I was able to secure a Pearson documents saying that the assessments it was creating for the Common Core were tied to 21st century skills. CRESST did a study for the Hewlett Foundation verifying that they would meet its definition of ‘deep learning.’

    Which the OECD says is synonymous with its definition of ‘adaptive competence.”

    Comment by Student of History — September 7, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

  5. There is a different 5 Cs that come from The 10 Cs: A Model of Diversity Awareness and Social Change that Harvard is pushing to have the classroom push.

    The 5 Cs of Awareness are Color, Culture, Class, Character and Context. Then we have the other 5 Cs of Change: Confidence, Courage, Commitment, conflict, and Community.

    Comment by Student of History — September 7, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

  6. This was a very enlightening article. I totally agree that students should be exposed to other subjects. When I was a 3rd grade teacher so much was put on reading and mathematics. I totally agree that with Common Core reading has to infuse within all subjects. Students need to be exposed to history, science, and etc. Most of the passages are on these topics of science and social studies.

    Comment by Cassie Bernard — September 20, 2013 @ 11:53 am

  7. I believe this is the most important criticism (one of the few that is even valid) related to Common Core. It is also consistent with my own experience. I am concerned that some of the assessment projects I have seen and been marginally involved in are being pushed in the direction of content-averse skills testing on the spurious grounds that some kids may have an advantage over others if the assessments are tied too closely to subject-matter content. I believe the exact opposite is the case – that a content-less skills approach will allow school systems to drop the ball in doing what is needed for the poorest and least prepared students.

    Instead, it seems to me that Common Core assessments ought to be developed within the frameworks of specific content areas – history-based assessments, biology-based assessments, etc. My question is, how can the overall assessment process be re-directed in that sort of way if the major assessment apparatus now operating is pushing in the opposite direction? Should not the states with strong content-rich standards take the lead in seeing to it that CC assessments are tailored to subject specific content and objectives? Does Common Core need to be rescued from itself?

    Comment by Jon Burack — October 9, 2013 @ 7:26 am

  8. Jon Burack is exactly right. The flight from academic content has been seen in waves for more than a hundred years, as Diane Ravitch described in “Left Back.” Anti-academic goals in Common Core are just the latest effort. A postmodern effort, perhaps, but still a flight from knowledge in the schools.

    Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — October 9, 2013 @ 9:11 am

  9. Will,
    I appreciate the support, but I am not condemning Common Core itself. I like the standards themselves as far as they go – especially in so far as they support rigorous and consistent content teaching. I am also aware of good assessment efforts based on Common Core – and even like to think I am involved in one myself. But I do see a direction in some cases that is in line with the criticisms E. D. Hirsch suggests here.

    Comment by Jon Burack — October 9, 2013 @ 10:38 am

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