Four years into the national education experiment known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the first state to sign on is grappling with low test scores and rising concerns that high school graduates are unprepared for college-level work.
If there is any place where Common Core should be soaring it is Kentucky, which has had more time to implement and adapt to the standards than any other state. But a batch of results released earlier this year indicates that students are not doing better in most grades — and in some cases even worse.
“We’re not doing very well,” said Richard Innes, an education analyst with the free market Bluegrass Institute. “After four years of Common Core, to have flat or declining test scores in math and English is definitely not very encouraging.”
The mediocre results show up not just on the new Common Core-aligned tests that Kentucky students take starting in third grade but, more tellingly, on the ACT college entrance exam. All Kentucky high school students, whether college-bound or not, take the test.
Innes noted that Kentucky eighth-graders also fared worse in math on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress test compared with 2013.
Developed by the National Governors Association and backed by billions of dollars in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Common Core standards were designed to raise student achievement and provide a level of uniformity that would allow students moving from one state to another to seamlessly transition to a new school. Kentucky signed on in 2010 before a draft of the standards had been made public.
The program has become increasingly controversial, however, especially after President Obama made the standards a key component of his education platform. His Department of Education has dangled federal grant money in an effort to get states to come on board. At its peak, all but five states had signed on.
But the program has been unraveling. Polls show the greatest degree of hostility among Republicans and declining support among Democrats and independent voters, as well. Some teachers unions have objected to an over-reliance on testing, especially in jurisdictions that use results as part of teacher evaluation.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a one-time supporter running for the Republican nomination for president, now opposes the program.
The West Virginia Department of Education voted unanimously this month to withdraw from Common Core, becoming the latest state to do so. Massachusetts, long regarded a model in public education, delivered a major blow to Common Core supporters when it pulled out in November.
Peter Greene, a high school English teacher in Pennsylvania who writes an education blog, said there is a “disconnect” between the higher-order thinking Common Core purports to foster and the fact that standardized testing cannot possibly measure that.
The standards, he said, “are oddly specific about some things and oddly vague about other things.”
Even supporters acknowledge that improvement in student achievement has not progressed as quickly as some expected, as reflected in standardized test scores.
“Across the board, they’re not as exciting as we would have hoped,” said Gerard Robinson, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Robinson, a former secretary of the Virginia Department of Education, said it is difficult to count how many states remain on board with Common Core. He noted that Florida, for instance, formally withdrew but then replaced the program with a substantially similar set of standards. But he said the number of states that remain fully committed is probably more than 30.
He argues the problems that have arisen are the result of poor implementation, not the standards, themselves.
Kentucky retains supporters, too.
“I certainly think it’s been working in Kentucky,” said Roger Marcum, the president of the state Board of Education.
Marcum said higher-level math and critical thinking are harder to measure with tests, and argued that schools simply need more time.
“Four years is not quite a good measure of that,” he said, suggesting that 12 or 13 years might be necessary for a fair assessment.
But Inness, of the Bluegrass Institute, said four years should be sufficient.
“It’s just not a new deal for us anymore,” he said.
Nine college math department chairmen signed a letter to the state’s higher education chief complaining about a plan to eliminate remedial classes and provide extra help within credit-bearing courses.
The college and career-ready standards were supposed to dramatically reduce the number of college students in need of remediation and those who did could “catch up” while they took regular courses.
“Many of these students lack the skills desired even of high school freshmen, skills that need to be mastered before becoming immersed in college‐level courses,” they wrote. “Placing these students into courses for which they have not met prerequisites can only lead to either lower educational standards or increased failure rates.”
Despite assurances that a higher percentage of high school grads are college-ready, the professors are not actually seeing it once the kids hit campus.