Ever since their creation and adoption over a decade ago, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been hotly debated and intensely villainized. The backlash to the CCSS initially took many advocates and supporters by surprise, as state education standards have existed in the U.S. since the early 1990s, and the CCSS, which were originally developed by experts and state leaders in forty-eight states and the District of Columbia, innocuously aimed to raise academic expectations for all students, in the hopes of better preparing them for success in college or career.
We at Fordham have long conducted impartial and independent evaluations of states’ academic standards, and in 2010, we found the CCSS to be “clearer and more rigorous” than most states’ previous mathematics and English language arts standards. And tellingly, despite the ongoing political backlash against them, our most recent analysis found that the CCSS, or close variants, are still in use by most states today.
Of course, high-quality academic standards are only one, albeit critical, piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving student learning. How standards are actually implemented in schools and classrooms matters hugely, including whether teachers receive high-quality, standards-aligned, and subject-specific professional development and are using high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum materials, and whether states are assessing learning via the use of high-quality, standards-aligned assessments.
A new study conducted by Joshua Bleiberg, Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, contributes to the small but growing body of research on the Common Core’s impact on student outcomes, and how these may vary by student characteristics. It seeks to answer two main questions: To what extent did the CCSS affect student achievement? And to what extent did they close or exacerbate achievement gaps?
In the analysis, Bleiberg uses student-level National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data to estimate the initial effect of the Common Core on student outcomes. Specifically, Bleiberg analyzes biennial fourth and eighth grade math and reading scores over a ten-year period (from 2003 to 2013) for over 80,000 students for each subject year. He then compared data for states that were early Common Core implementers (classified as implementing the standards between 2011 and 2013) to late implementers (2014–15), based on state documents such as waiver applications and implementation timelines, which corroborate when the CCSS were adopted and ultimately implemented in each state. To explore the Common Core’s impact on achievement gaps, or disparities in academic performance between various groups of students, Bleiberg used NAEP student survey data and controlled for student characteristics, such as gender, eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL), race/ethnicity, and age. He also controlled for prior school achievement based on schools’ adequate yearly progress (AYP) status in 2003.
Bleiberg finds that, just a year or so after their adoption, the CCSS had a small but statistically significant positive effect on math scores (between 4 percent and 10 percent of a standard deviation) but no effect on reading scores, and that the benefits of the CCSS were strongest in fourth grade math. Bleiberg theorizes that this difference across subjects may be because “factors like home environment, other coursework, and extracurricular activities have a greater influence on reading relative to math outcomes.”
In terms of the standards’ impact on achievement gaps, or disparities in academic performance between various groups of students, Bleiberg finds that across all race and ethnic groups, the Common Core “contributes to the closure of achievement gaps.” Specifically, he finds “the White-Black achievement gap is about 5 percent of [a standard deviation] smaller after the CC in fourth-grade math and about 6 percent of [a standard deviation] smaller in fourth-grade reading. In fourth- and eighth-grade math, CC shrinks the White-Hispanic achievement gap by about 16 percent of [a standard deviation]. Fourth-grade math outcomes for FRPL eligible students decline by 6% of [a standard deviation] after CC.” He finds similar results for math for students that are English learners, and saw no effect on reading scores.
Interestingly, when Bleiberg explored effects for economically advantaged versus economically disadvantaged students, as measured by eligibility for FRPL, he finds “the positive effect of CC was larger for economically advantaged White and Black students than the effect of CC for economically disadvantaged White and Black students in math.” But “the CC had a larger positive effect (0.1 [of a standard deviation]) for economically disadvantaged Hispanic students than for economically advantaged Hispanic students in fourth-grade math.” As before, he did not detect a statistically significant effect of the Common Core on economically disadvantaged students’ reading outcomes. Based on these findings, Bleiberg concludes that “for students from economically disadvantaged families that faced other barriers to academic success, the CC backfired... Higher expectations provide the greatest benefit to students when students also have the resources needed to succeed.”
While somewhat underwhelming at face value, Bleiberg’s findings are not surprising and, at least to this reader, underscore that effective standards implementation is difficult and takes time. Notably, this study uses data from 2003 to 2013, as Bleiberg explains, “to remove the endogeneity from changes to content standards after 2013.” But as a result, it does not capture any longer-term effects of the Common Core. This is an important caveat, as many states didn’t even begin implementing the standards until the 2012 to 2015 school years. What’s more, Common Core–aligned assessments, PARCC and SBAC, weren’t administered in states until 2015. And until just a few years ago, the need for standards-aligned curricula was still a top cited Common Core challenge for states, districts, and schools. As Bleiberg himself notes, “Given the limited window in which I observe posttreatment outcomes, it is unlikely that teachers had enough time to change their instruction.”
The study is also not nationally representative, as only states that had “low rigor” content standards prior to the Common Core were included. (Bleiberg relied upon ratings from two prior Fordham state standards reviews conducted in 2006 and 2010.) In addition to states that had “high rigor” standards prior to Common Core, those that never adopted the Common Core and those that made substantive revisions to the Common Core were also excluded from the analysis. And finally, as Bleiberg also stresses, though his analysis controlled for key education reforms adopted during this period, such as changes to teacher evaluation and ESEA waivers, it’s not possible to rule out that other differences in state capacity (such as education resources or political capital) may account for the results detected.
Despite these limitations, this study’s finding of “small positive correlations between the CC and student outcomes...and no evidence that student outcomes declined due to the implementation of CC” is consistent with and adds to prior research.
Bleiberg concludes that, at least in the initial year or two following its adoption, the Common Core may not have helped all students equally across school contexts, and “understanding what causes those differences is key to improving the next generation of content standards.” To be sure, schools should do more to support economically disadvantaged students and help them meet the rigorous academic standards called for by the Common Core. And it’s not surprising that, at least initially, students whose skills were furthest from the lofty goals of these higher standards struggled the most. But in our most recent analysis of state standards, we advised states with solid standards “to devote their resources to implementing them well... standards are only words on paper if they don’t inspire great instruction in the classroom.” Now is no time to walk away from our commitment to high standards for all children, and the important progress we’ve made over the past decade in providing teachers with high-quality curricular resources and assessments with which to support their implementation. Additional research on how classroom instruction continues to evolve will help provide a clearer picture of Common Core’s longer-term impact.
SOURCE: Joshua Bleiberg, Does the Common Core Have a Common Effect? An Exploration of Effects on Academically Vulnerable Students, AERA Open (April 26, 2021).