When Common Core Research Makes Apples-to-Apples Comparisons Before the Fruit is Ripe

Mar 30, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Tracy Dell’Angela

Common Core implementation is not an apples-to-apples comparison, or even an apples-to-oranges comparison. Rather it’s a big messy fruit salad, and unfortunately for Brown Center researcher Tom Loveless, he cut up the fruit before it was ripe enough for harvest. The Brown Center recently released its 15th annual report on How Well Are American Students Learning. While the well-regarded policy paper covered three aspects of K-12 learning, only one subject got the real headline-grabbing attention. Here’s the summary that most reporters and pundits seized upon:
Critics blamed Common Core for disappointing NAEP scores in 2015. The good news for Common Core supporters is that nothing in the analysis supports that charge. The bad news is that there also is no evidence that CCSS has made much of a difference during a six-year period of stagnant NAEP scores.
The fundamental flaw in that assertion? It’s way too early to call the question. Common Core might have been approved in 2010, but it did not really roll out in classrooms, districts and states until two-, maybe three-, years-ago—and the rollout varied wildly. As Education Week pointed out:
Most states adopted the common standards in 2010, although they may not have fully implemented them in classrooms for some time after. According to this year’s Brown Center Report on American Education, 4th and 8th grade students in states that adopted the Common Core State Standards outperformed their peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2009 and 2013. But between 2013 and 2015, students in non-adoption states made larger gains than those in common-core states.
Which means the only period that can be reasonably compared is the last two years—when NAEP (National Association of Educational Progress) scores actually declined in fourth- and eighth-grade math and eighth-grade reading. As the report notes, the dismal NAEP results were quickly politicized:
Advocates and critics of CCSS have labored mightily to present the disappointing 2015 NAEP scores in the most favorable light for their cause. Making up rules for explaining test scores after the scores are known introduces the usual pitfalls of post hoc analysis, and to do so while participating in a political debate should raise alarm bells…
Are Common Core standards truly changing how students are learning? Yes, of course, and the Brown report demonstrates that, although the analysis focuses on two narrow changes—the increasing use of non-fiction text and the shift toward general math classes in eighth grade—based on a few questions self-reported by teachers in the NAEP survey. Has implementation varied widely in both quality and speed from school to school and district to district? Yes, of course, but the analysis doesn’t truly acknowledge that, other than to clump one group of 11 states into a category called “strong implementers” and another group of 32 into a “medium implementers” group (based on the states’ responses to survey questions about professional development investment and membership in a testing consortia). We’re on shaky ground even comparing these implementing states to the so-called “non-adopters” because, as Chris Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers points out, all states have raised the bar on learning standards in the past few years—even the seven states that never adopted, backed off or repackaged Common Core. Loveless did note the limitations of his analysis, but that nuance was generally lost in the rush to make a definitive pronouncement about the demise of the most sweeping, most controversial and most misunderstood reform to hit American classrooms in decades. In his own understated way, Loveless concludes that whatever is ailing our education, it is much bigger than the adoption of learning standards.
None of the states are setting the world on fire. Whatever is depressing NAEP scores appears to be more general than the impact of one set of standards or another.
To me, that’s the real jarring headline.
An original version of this post also appeared on the Head in the Sand blog with the title When Common Core Research Makes Apples-to-Apples Comparisons Before the Fruit is Ripe.

Tracy Dell’Angela

Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that drives improvement in Chicago and nationwide. She also served as Senior Project Director for 100Kin10 at the University of Chicago and was Director of Program Investments and Partnerships for the Chicago Public Education Fund. Tracy spent most of her career as an award-winning newspaper journalist, including 12 years at the Chicago Tribune as an education reporter covering national policy and the Chicago Public Schools. A Californian by birth but a Chicagoan in spirit, Tracy attended University of Chicago as a master's student in social sciences and earned a B.A. in journalism and political science from San Diego State University.

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