Grading the Common Core Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2009

A new report from the Fordham Foundation gives a grade of “B” to the draft of the proposed “Common Core” standards in ELA and Math.

Fordham’s report, Stars by Which to Navigate: Scanning National and International Standards in 2009, asked subject-matter experts to review the “content, rigor, and clarity of the first public drafts of the ‘Common Core’ standards” as well as the reading, writing and mathematics frameworks of NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA.  How’d they do?

Common Core Reading/Writing/Speaking & Listening: B
Common Core Math: B
NAEP Reading/Writing: B
NAEP Math: C
TIMSS Math: A
PISA Reading: D
PISA Math: D

The executive summary (I have not read the full report, which was just released this morning) makes a couple of important points, explaining and justifying the “B” grade for the common standards:

The document properly acknowledges that essential communication skills must be embraced and addressed beyond the English classroom….These skill-centric standards do not, however, suffice to frame a complete English or language arts curriculum. Proper standards for English must also provide enough content guidance to help teachers instill not just useful skills, but also imagination, wonder, and a deep appreciation for our literary heritage. Despite their many virtues, these skills-based competencies cannot serve as a strong framework for the robust liberal arts curricula that will prepare young Americans to thrive as citizens in a free society. States adopting these standards must, therefore, be very careful about how they supplement them so as to achieve that goal.

 Hard to disagree with any of that, and the B grade sounds fair.  “The Common Core standards are off to a good start,” says Fordham’s Checker Finn, “though there’s room for improvement—and a sound English curriculum will require plenty more than the valuable skills set forth here.”

TIMSS: Solid, Spectacular, Troubling or Dismal?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 10th, 2008

Results of the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were released Tuesday, and the data proves to be a bit of an educational Rorschach Test.  The New York Times sees “solid achievement gains” in math by U.S. 4th and 8th graders, and “spectacular progress” by students in Minnesota and Massachsetts, while science performance remained flat nationwide.  “The results showed that several Asian countries continued to outperform the United States greatly in science and math,” notes the Times, “subjects that are crucial to economic competitiveness and research.”

USA Today’s Greg Toppo sees American students “consistently better than average,” but notes that “if there were a math-and-science Olympics for elementary and middle schoolers…the USA never quite makes it to the medal podium.”

At Flypaper, the Fordham Foundation finds reasons to be cheerful.  “American students have made steady gains in mathematics performance over the past decade. This progress was especially noteworthy at the eighth grade level, where the U.S. made gains since 1995 that were at least as strong as all of our major economic competitors.”  Diane Ravitch disagrees however that 8th grade gains are “noteworthy.”

The gains posted by 8th graders are certainly not a vindication of No Child Left Behind’s testing regime. Eighth-graders registered a 12-point gain in math from 1995-2003, before the imposition of NCLB testing. They posted a 4-point gain from 2003-2007. The students who were tested by TIMSS in 2007 had been subject to NCLB annual tests in every year from third grade onward, yet their scores did not show a dramatic improvement. If anything, the gains were no greater (and possibly smaller) than those registered pre-NCLB.

Democratic Congressman George Miller sees “significant gains” in 4th grade math, but tells the Washington Post it’s “troubling that our students are still behind their international peers in both math and science.”  Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, tells USA Today that the new TIMSS results belie complaints that U.S. students are lagging behind the rest of the world in math. “It’s just not true,” he says. “It hasn’t been true for a long time.”  Meanwhile the National Science Teachers Association pronounces itself “discouraged” by the results, noting science scores for minority students are “dismal.”  Many districts simply do not value science education, says a statement released by the NSTA Tuesday. ”Science is being eliminated from many K-6 classrooms.”

Math Scores: U.S. Cities vs. The World

by Robert Pondiscio
October 23rd, 2008

Students in six major U.S. cities–Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Houston, New York and San Diego–are performing as well or better in mathematics than 4th and 8th graders in other countries, according to a new study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

However, students from five other major cities–Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, the District of Columbia and Los Angeles–are performing below the international average, and sometimes well below.  The research compares data on the U.S. cities math performance in the NAEP 2007 Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) in  Mathematics with international numbers culled from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). 

USA Today looks at the numbers and concludes “Fourth- and eighth-grade students in…Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Houston, New York City and San Diego actually hold their own against international competitors from Singapore, Japan, England and elsewhere.”  That’s an overly generous description given that Singapore has 73% of its 8th graders proficient in math; Japan has 57%; while the top U.S. cities in the study, Charlotte and Austin, have a proficiency rate of 34%.  However, the international TIMSS average among 8th graders is a mere 21%.  For it’s part AIR concludes:

The findings in this report reinforce the fact that neither the typical student in the United States or in any of the 11 urban districts has achieved the Proficient level of performance found in Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Chinese Taipei, and Japan. If the United States is counting on today’s mathematics education to seed the future technology and science needed to carry our cities and our nation forward, then we are already at a competitive disadvantage.

A press release on the study is here.  The full report is here.