By David Griffith and Amber M. Northern
It’s been almost a decade since governors and state superintendents started work on what would become the Common Core State Standards, and five years since those standards sparked a political firestorm that nearly burnt them to a crisp. Predictably, a recent study of ours found that most states that succumbed to that political pressure ended up with standards that were worse—less rigorous, less clear, and less helpful for teachers, students, and parents. But thankfully, it also confirmed that most states remained steadfast, meaning they still have the Common Core or something very close to it.
To these states we say: Don’t fix what’s not broken. The Common Core standards in math and English language arts are still “best-in-class,” and studies by Fordham and others demonstrate that implementation is still very much a work in progress. So by all means, keep the focus on helping educators understand the higher expectations and providing them with the resources—like subject-specific professional development and content-rich curricula—to meet them.
That said, we understand that some states still face pressure to ditch the Common Core. And eventually all states will face the task of updating them. After all, they weren’t handed down from Mount Sinai, and eventually they will grow long in the tooth, especially as research yields new insights. So how can states ensure that their next round of standards revisions—whenever it occurs—is a step forward, rather than a step backward?
Fortunately, our expert reviewers highlighted specific improvements that a few enterprising states have made to the standards, as well as some other areas where improvement is clearly possible:
Recommendations for English language arts
1. Further develop the disciplinary literacy standards—especially for grades six through twelve.
Each discipline uses language in particular ways to create, disseminate, and evaluate knowledge. So it’s important that students develop an understanding of these differences. However, as noted in our updated review, the literacy standards in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects (i.e., the Common Core’s “disciplinary literacy” standards) could be strengthened, especially in grades six through twelve. Most obviously, states could develop specific standards in speaking and listening, and in language, since both of these domains are omitted entirely from the Core’s disciplinary literacy standards.
2. Clarify the differences between ninth and tenth grade and between eleventh and twelfth grade.
At the high school level, the Common Core English language arts standards are divided into two-year grade bands (nine and ten and eleven and twelve) “to allow schools, districts, and states flexibility in high school course design.” However, reviewers found that this lack of specificity resulted in redundancies across grade levels, making it difficult for teachers to know how expectations should increase or evolve from one grade to the next. Consequently, states should consider creating grade-specific English language arts standards for high school.
3. Make targeted improvements to the writing standards.
California has made some useful additions to the standards for writing. For example, students are now expected to “write routinely over extended…and shorter time frames” starting in grade two instead of grade three, and the standards for higher grades include more detailed expectations related to thesis statements (grade six) and dealing with counterarguments (grade seven). States might consider adopting similar improvements.
Recommendations for mathematics
1. Articulate clear pathways in high school math that are explicitly aligned with specific post-secondary and labor market outcomes.
Notably, both California and Massachusetts have effectively integrated the Common Core high school math standards, which are presented by conceptual category, with the appendix that accompanies them (which provides options for organizing those standards into courses). Still, most states could be clearer about how their high school courses fit together and what they prepare a student to do post-graduation. Ideally, high school standards would indicate which pathways prepare students for STEM or other quantitative college majors, for the intellectual demands of completing college with a non-STEM major, or for technical and nontechnical fields that may not require a four-year degree.
2. Add standards for advanced high school math courses.
Regardless of the path students choose, all of them should learn algebra, geometry, and statistics—and every student should take four years of high school math—rather than the three courses that most states currently require. More advanced “fourth year” courses could potentially include AP Probability and Statistics, as well as calculus (see California’s standards) and advanced quantitative reasoning courses (see Massachusetts’s standards).
Recommendation for both subjects
Take another look at the alignment between K–12 and pre-K.
Although a comprehensive review of states’ pre-K standards was beyond the scope of our report, both review teams noted that a few states had made a conscious effort to align their pre-K and K–12 standards—something that is clearly desirable in principle. Because it has been more than a decade since most states adopted their pre-K standards, the potential for some sort of misalignment is considerable. States that haven’t taken another look at this issue in consultation with early childhood experts may want to do so.
Our reviewers, as well as those of us at Fordham, believe the Common Core standards have aged well. But they aren’t perfect. So if state leaders believe they can ensure a rigorous revision process, they should consider embarking on a targeted update when the time is right. In the meantime, all states should continue to focus on where “higher standards” matter most: in the classroom.
A growing number of states are working toward setting standards for college and career readiness. In many of those states, the argument is being made that because all students should leave high school ready for college or career, the high school diploma should be set to the new college and career standard, and no one should get a diploma in the future who does not meet that standard.
At the same time, there is renewed interest in many states in what we used to call vocational education and we call career and technical education (CTE). But giving it a new name has not really changed the widely held perception that—whatever you want to call it—it is the schooling of last resort for students who cannot do academics.
Some states have responded to the baleful status of CTE by creating some CTE high schools that screen their applicants and only take in those who meet high academic standards. Some offer AP courses or an IB program right along with their IT or shop courses. This seems to work, enabling CTE to attract more high-performing middle school graduates than used to be the case. At least in those schools, CTE is no longer the option of last resort for those who can't do academics. That is a good thing for the students involved, but also for an economy that is very short of people qualified for high-tech jobs in occupations requiring less than a four-year education.
But the dynamics set up by these developments are very complex.
Nearly four in ten of the students graduating high school and headed for college go to our community colleges. But more than half of them are told by their community colleges that their literacy in English and mathematics is not high enough to enable them to enroll in credit-bearing courses. Community colleges are not only a primary gateway to college in the United States, but also our primary provider of career and technical education. If you are not ready for community college, you are not ready for either college or career.
The obvious policy response is to set a standard for graduating high school that matches the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in initial credit bearing courses in community college.
We know what that standard is. Students would have to read at the tenth grade level at a minimum, be proficient in the topics in a typical Algebra I textbook and a few topics in geometry and statistics and write a good deal better than they do now. There is good reason to believe that 40 to 50 percent of high school graduates cannot do these things now.
So what to do? Much depends on what you think the students themselves are capable of. If you believe that a large fraction of students are and always will be incapable of reading at a tenth-grade-level and doing eighth-grade math, then, obviously, it would be mean and unreasonable to set up a system that requires them to do so. You would be setting them up for failure.
But there is abundant evidence that they can do far better than they are doing. Students in the top-performing countries leave high school two to three years ahead of our students. More students from such nations score in the upper quartile of the PISA performance scale than do students in the U.S. while more U.S. students score in the bottom quartile than do students in the top-performing systems. Students in Singapore’s bottom 25th percentile actually score higher on PISA than the average U.S. student. So, we know kids can do it. It is the system that is failing the kids, not the kids who are failing the system.
So, if we know that the kids can do it, why not just raise the standards for getting the high school diploma to a college and career ready standard that matches what it will take to succeed in the first year of a typical community college program?
Because even in the most optimistic scenario, it will take many years to match the achievements of Singapore, Estonia, Hong Kong, Finland and Canada. It would be hard enough if the only challenge was reorganizing how we do education, but the enormous disparities in family income in the U.S.—the greatest in the industrialized world—and the lack of appropriate services for children growing up in poverty in the United States—make this an even greater challenge.
So the reality is that, if the standard for getting a high school diploma is raised to the standard required to be successful in the first year of community college, then a large fraction of the students who complete high school under the current requirements for a high school diploma would no longer get one, for many years to come. That will not stand. The political pressure to change such a system will be unstoppable. It will take the form of a demand to lower or abandon the standard.
The alternative is abandoning the idea of simply raising the graduation standard to the level required to succeed in the first year of community college. Let the high school diploma be what it has effectively been for many years: an attendance certificate. That attendance certificate is no minor thing. It certifies that the student has had the stick-to-itiveness to show up for twelve or more years, take all the required courses, complete the required work and do whatever else was needed to get passing grades. Not only is that not nothing, it is pretty much all that is required for millions of jobs in the American economy, from unskilled laborer to farmhand and retail clerk. Millions of American employers are looking for workers who have a good work ethic, will show up on time, put in a full day's work and get the job done. They are even happy to teach them the arithmetic they need if they can find them. That is what a high school diploma should do for millions of job applicants and employers.
Which gets me to the third strand of my tangled web. When I first heard that successful CTE high schools were actually selective high schools, selecting on academic performance in middle school, I was very upset. What, I asked, about the very large numbers of students who this process left behind? Then I realized that I could not have it both ways. If CTE is ever to be anything other than the low-status option for students who could not do academics—if CTE is ever to have the same status as academic education and provide the high technical skills that middle-skill jobs now demand—then it has to set academic standards for the students who choose it that are on par with the standards for students going on to serious academic programs. Students would choose it not because it was easy but because it was hands-on and exciting and they could see the purpose in learning the classroom component every day.
The Bush and Obama administrations put enormous pressure on schools to raise graduation rates. Too many responded with workarounds for the students, ways to get a diploma by cutting corners. Some do it with "credit recovery," which is nothing more than a chance to graduate using an alternative assessment that virtually anyone could pass. Others use similar workarounds. The leap in graduation rates is largely bogus. One could argue that these measures are the result of adults making themselves look good, or that it’s the result of compassionate educators trying to help kids who would otherwise have no future.
The right policy goal is to find a way to greatly improve student achievement across the board, for every group in our society, while portraying achievement honestly and accurately. If you don't do that, if you choose instead to misrepresent student achievement by lowering the standard without acknowledging you have done so, all you do is put the integrity of the whole system in doubt.
But if you advertise a standard as college and career ready and then deny a high school diploma to all who do not meet it, you will either have to lower that standard or lose your policy-making job, because it will be years before that gap is closed and the society cannot and will not tolerate a large fraction of students leaving high school with no credential at all.
Better to have one standard that truly means college and career ready and another that means the student did everything needed to meet a traditional high school graduation standard.
But this way of thinking about standards and gateways has its own dangers. Suppose that sticking with a high school diploma that is not tied to a community college entrance requirement results in a permanent underclass of mainly poor and minority students who are never expected to get more than a high school diploma, who will always be in the low-skill, low-wage jobs, generation after generation.
That is an intolerable outcome. Fortunately, there are a growing number of high-performing countries that have managed to produce not only much higher student achievement overall than the United States, but much higher equity in those results than we have yet achieved. Among the most important indicators of equity is the substantially higher proportion of students living in poverty in these countries that end up in the top ranks of student performance.
Regular readers of Education Week’s Top Performers blog are familiar with the litany of strategies the top performers use to produce these outcomes. They include not just more money, but much more effective ways to spend that money, especially for the most disadvantaged. I don't have the space here to rehearse the list once more.
In the context of the argument I have made in this blog, what I want to emphasize is what I have seen most clearly in Singapore and Shanghai. I told you earlier that, according to PISA, students in the top-performing systems are graduating two and three years ahead of their U.S. peers. Again, students at Singapore's lowest quartile perform better than the average American student. In both cases, a great effort is made to place first-rate teachers and administrators in the schools serving the most disadvantaged. The expectations for students are set very high for all students and the students are given a curriculum that is matched to those standards. But the teachers are given much more time to work with each other to develop highly effective lessons and effective teaching techniques so the students can reach those higher standards. Their approach to formative evaluation provides teachers with the skills needed to figure out whether every student in the class understands the material as it is being taught, so no one falls behind. If a student does fall behind, a team of teachers is formed to figure out why and fix the problem, whatever it is, in school or out. If a whole group of students is falling behind, the core curriculum is stretched out and enriched for them and the students get much more support, whether that means before school, during the school day, on Saturdays or during the summer, in small groups, one-on-one, whatever it takes. More time, more support, but not lower standards.
In this system, students do not routinely arrive at middle school from elementary school two or even three years behind. It simply does not happen. Nor does it happen at the transition from middle school to high school. The teachers take collective responsibility for the students, monitor them closely and work together in real time to address problems in performance as they arise, not after they have accumulated for years. They are given the time, support, training and leadership they need do that.
If one of our states set up a system like this, it could reasonably expect to cut the proportion of its students not ready for college dramatically in ten years and, no less important, greatly increase the probability that any given child from a poor family will do well enough to get into a highly selective college. Indeed, the global record shows that, with this kind of design, it should be possible to cut the proportion of students in special education by half, not by depriving them of services they need, but by providing them an education so effective that they do not need special education. I do not know what proportion of our students will, in the end, achieve a college and career standard. But I do know that it is a far larger proportion than do so now. There is no reason why schooling cannot once again be the gateway to opportunity in the United States that it once was.
Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
This essay was originally published by Education Week.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
There’s no perfect solution to the quandary that New York City has long faced in trying to inject greater equity into the most meritocratic of its schools: the nine selective public high schools, eight of which (including Bronx Science and Stuyvesant) rely on scores from a single test of interested eighth graders to determine who gets admitted. Exceed the ever-changing cut score for one of these schools and you’re in; fall a fraction of a point below and you’re out.
In one important sense, it’s completely fair, much like a school’s field day. Anyone who wishes to can enter an event, everyone who does is judged on the same metric, the scoring is objective (e.g., stop watches), and the top scorers win. In another important sense, however, it’s not fair at all, because in a city with a high school population that’s predominantly African American and Hispanic, the overwhelming majority of those who win admission to these schools are Asian and white.
That unfortunate circumstance is the result of many factors, some of them beyond the reach of public policy, much less of high school admission procedures. Other key factors, however, are led by the parlous condition of many of Gotham’s elementary and middle schools. The inequitable learning coming out of those schools is vividly on display in New York City’s results on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress:
Eighth grade math, percent of students at or above the “proficient” level:
- Asian: 58
- White: 45
- Black: 10
- Hispanic: 17
Eighth grade reading, percent of students at or above the “proficient” level:
- Asian: 45
- White: 46
- Black: 14
- Hispanic: 18
When we look at NAEP’s “advanced” level—which, realistically, is the population apt to win admission to these selective high schools—the data get gloomier still. Among eighth graders, only 1 percent—1 percent!—of Hispanic and black youngsters reached that bar in reading in 2017, versus 8 and 10 percent for white and Asian students. In math, it was 1 percent for blacks and 2 percent for Hispanics, compared with 13 and 27(!) percent for whites and Asians, respectively.
So long as Gotham’s elementary and middle schools are producing such discrepant results, there is simply no satisfactory way to reconcile the demanding standards of the city’s selective academic high schools with the desire for racially equitable admissions. That’s not a defense of the current admissions test. It’s a blunt statement that far too few of the city’s black and Hispanic eighth graders have been adequately prepared to succeed in those specialized high schools.
Making the situation yet more fraught, New York is an immense city and there aren’t nearly enough places in these nine schools to accommodate all the kids—of whatever race—who are academically ready and eager to enroll. Former chancellors Harold Levy and Joel Klein deserve plaudits for getting the number up to nine, but there would need to be nine times nine to meet the demand, and nobody on Mayor de Blasio’s team shows any signs of wanting to head in that direction.
My colleagues Adam Tyner and Brandon Wright find some merit in Hizzoner’s proposal to offer admission to these schools to the top students from every New York middle school, an approach with obvious surface appeal. It would indisputably change the racial and ethnic composition of the entering class. Because it would mean that far fewer white and—especially—Asian youngsters get in, the de Blasio proposal has met with fierce opposition from those quarters. It’s been denounced as blatant discrimination against Asian students, with advocates noting that, like most immigrant communities, their families live in relatively few neighborhoods and their children would thus be forced to compete with each other rather than on the present citywide basis.
What I also find deeply problematic about the mayor’s plan is the shaky basis on which top students would be identified in the middle schools: a mix of course grades and state assessment scores. Course grades are subject both to overall grade inflation and to teacher preferences, predilections, and idiosyncrasies. They vary from classroom to classroom and are often affected as much by kids’ behavior as their academic prowess.
As for state assessments, New York has—sadly—been watering them down for years. They’re designed to determine who is proficient and on a path to proficient, not who is best, and like most state tests they don’t even discriminate very well psychometrically among students at the high end. Moreover—even sadder—New York City has multiple middle schools where practically no students meet the state’s modest proficiency standard. Place the “top” pupils from those schools into Stuyvesant or Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech and one of two things will happen: either the kids will fail or the curriculum and pedagogy will have to be dumbed down to accommodate them.
The University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski has suggested an interesting hybrid, whereby the City might use the state’s universal tests of seventh and eighth graders as a threshold measure to ensure that everyone at least gets considered (an important consideration, rightly endorsed by Adam and Brandon), then deploy the current Specialized High Schools Admissions Test—or something akin to it—to evaluate and select among those who did well on the first round.
That’s better than the mayor’s plan and an improvement on today’s process. But we’re still rationing too scarce an education resource and too many kids are ill-prepared to compete seriously for it.
It’s not their fault, dammit. It’s the fault of a broken system, and the way to fix it isn’t by messing with the most successful parts of it. It’s to build from the bottom up, starting with solid pre-K, extended kindergarten, letting no one leave third grade who isn’t reading fluently and doing arithmetic competently, infusing a rich, content-based curriculum throughout the early and middle grades. Many more of the elementary and middle schools serving poor kids would also benefit from beefed-up “gifted and talented” programs to give extra boosts to able and high-achieving pupils. While places in the city’s selective high schools are (unfortunately) limited, there’s no reason to limit the options and opportunities that lead up to them, and in time this will yield more well-qualified black and Hispanic eighth graders.
None of this is magical thinking. Any number of New York schools—many of them charters—are doing a bang-up job with poor and minority youngsters today, and many more could do it tomorrow. That’s what the city needs—along with a bunch more top-notch high schools.
Adam and Brandon weren’t wrong to try to devise a better way to ration today’s skimpy supply of seats in the top high schools. Neither was Dynarski—or many others who have offered schemes of their own. But in the end they, like Mayor de Blasio, are rearranging deck chairs on a small and very leaky vessel. The million school children in New York City deserve a capacious and seaworthy ship.
Among the most frequently heard concerns around charter schools is that they drain money from traditional districts, potentially harming students who stay behind. Yet another school of thought theorizes that charters encourage district improvements by injecting competition into a largely monopolistic system. A new study conducted by Matthew Ridley and Camille Terrier puts both these claims to the test using data from Massachusetts, a state that recently held a hotly debated and ultimately unsuccessful referendum on expanding charters.
To examine charters’ effects on district spending and achievement, the researchers rely on a 2011 reform that allowed charter school expansion in underperforming Massachusetts districts. They identify nine “expanding” districts, including Boston, where the charter share increased markedly post-reform, and then compare their spending and test-score growth in math and English language arts (ELA) to “non-expanding” districts whose charter share remained flat. The analysts use various statistical techniques, including a “synthetic control method,” to estimate the impacts of charter expansion in the years after reform (2011–12 through 2014–15).
In terms of fiscal impact, their study finds that charter expansions increased districts’ per-pupil expenditures. Post-reform, total per-pupil spending in expanding districts rose at a faster clip than non-expanding ones, and by 2015 their expenditures were 4.8 percent higher. When broken down by expenditure type, the analysts find that fixed-cost expenditures, like maintenance and interest, increased by 6.2 percent and instructional expenses rose by 7.2 percent relative to the control group. Yet support service expenses slipped in expanding districts, suggesting that districts responded to greater competition by reallocating resources from support to instructional activities.
There is, however, an important policy twist to these financial results. During this period, Bay State districts with increasing charter enrollments received state reimbursements that compensated for the financial losses associated with transfers, explaining much of the rising expenditures. Yet this is also a costly approach that funds districts for students not in their classrooms. And it may be an unsustainable one as well; as the authors note, in more recent years—starting in FY 2015 to 2017—Massachusetts has cut its reimbursement rates. Nevertheless, whether the fiscal results of this study apply in states without reimbursement policies remains less certain.
Turning to the effects on student achievement, Ridley and Terrier conclude that charter expansions led to modest improvements among district pupils. Their analysis reveals achievement gains in both math and ELA among the expanding districts relative to those whose charter shares did not increase. Specifically, by 2015, expanding districts saw achievement gains of 0.03 standard deviations in math and 0.02 in ELA—what Ridley and Terrier call a “small positive effect.” They note that these gains are similar to those uncovered in a few other charter studies that also found mild but positive competitive effects.
This study challenges the notion that charters damage the well-established district school system. And it’s a pity that critics continue to push this canard to coax voters into opposing efforts to expand charters. (Can we redo the Massachusetts referendum in light of this study?) Instead, an accumulating body of evidence indicates that, through healthy competition—and collaboration as well—the expansion of charter schools can indeed contribute to a rising tide that lifts all boats.
SOURCE: Matthew Ridley and Camille Terrier, Fiscal and Education Spillovers from Charter School Expansion, School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative (2018).
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the real average cost of one year of college has doubled since 1985. Many worry that climbing prices lock low-income students out of elite schools, but a new study from Jason D. Delisle and Preston Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute finds the opposite. Over the last two decades, as the cost of the most selective colleges has indeed gone up, so has enrollment of students from the lowest income bracket.
Delisle and Cooper attribute their findings to a rarely-used data source: the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative dataset from the U.S. Department of Education. Because NPSAS directly measures family income and contains a much broader sample of students, it provides a more comprehensive view into enrollment trends than most studies allow. The authors divide students into income quartiles and define the bottom quartile as “low income” and the top as “high income.” “Selective institutions” are the 200 U.S. colleges with the lowest acceptance rates and highest SAT/ACT scores over a fifteen-year period (2001–15).
Counter to the traditional narrative, the share of low-income students at selective colleges has actually increased since 1999. That year, only 8.1 percent of students at these institutions were in the lowest income quartile; by 2015, that number had nearly doubled to 15.1 percent. Delisle and Cooper note that colleges likely did not lower admissions standards to boost low-income enrollment, as average test scores among these students did not decline over the same period. Meanwhile, the share of high-income students also increased slightly, from 52.1 percent to 54.2 percent.
If selective colleges enroll more students from both extremes of the income spectrum, something had to give. Indeed, enrollment from the two middle quartiles dropped nine points, from 39.7 percent in 1999 to 30.7 percent in 2015.
A brief look at net tuition also challenges the conventional wisdom. Yes, college costs have gone up, but low-income students paid only $1,358 more for tuition in 2015 than in 1999 (adjusted for inflation). This 42 percent increase is less than the 64 percent price increase students from the highest income bracket faced. Their tuition jumped $8,162. Middle-income students from the third income quartile experienced a $3,433, or a 48 percent, rise.
Why do the findings in this report differ from the bleaker conclusions reached in other studies? Delisle and Cooper present a few reasons. First, their use of the NPSAS allows them to examine family income directly. Most other studies use proxies for income, such as whether a student received Pell funding. The “Pell proxy” allows for data collection at the institutional level, but it does not accurately represent income distribution on campus. Not every low-income student receives Pell money, and some middle-income students do receive the grant. The authors also include independent and part-time students in their income quartiles. Since 40 percent of today’s college students are “non-traditional learners,” they should absolutely be part of any conversation about enrollment trends.
Unfortunately, the inclusion of non-traditional learners does not extend to the authors’ analysis of tuition increases, where they focus only on full-time students. Selective schools may work hard to keep costs low for financially strapped pupils, but many scholarships are only available to full-time college-goers. They also do not discuss the rising cost of living, a barrier low-income students face regardless of tuition assistance. In fact, the College Board estimates room-and-board expenses can sometimes match or exceed annual tuition.
Overall, it is encouraging to see that low-income learners are not being priced out of top tier colleges to the extent many fear. Though Delisle and Cooper commend institutions for keeping these students from “bearing the full brunt of increasing tuition,” it is concerning that their success has come at the expense of middle-income pupils. We should also evaluate the total cost of heading to college, not just tuition itself, before applauding too loudly. With over half the seats at selective schools still filled from the top income quartile, there is still more work to be done to make high quality education affordable for students from all backgrounds.
SOURCE: Jason D. Delisle and Preston Cooper, “Low-Income Students at Selective Colleges: Disappearing or Holding Steady?” American Enterprise Institute (July 2018).
On this week's podcast, Elizabeth Mann Levesque, a fellow at Brookings, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the state of civics education in America. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how repeating a grade affects students’ high school outcomes.
Amber’s Research Minute
Louis T. Marian et al., “How Does Repeating a Grade Impact Students' High School Persistence and Behavior? The Case of New York City,” RAND Corporation (July 2018).