California is making an expensive gamble that Common Core standards, which are described as a “single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English Language Arts and mathematics that states voluntarily adopt,” will actually improve student achievement. The Boston-based Pioneer Institute estimates the total cost of Common Core will be more than $16 billion over seven years. In 2013 alone, the California Legislature has already appropriated $1.25 billion for Common Core implementation.
The Legislature has also voted to end the current state testing system. Parents, taxpayers and policymakers will not have meaningful information about school or student performance until at least the end of 2015. Even then, it will never be comparable to the STAR testing system that has been in place for the last 15 years, which will make it very difficult to determine if California's students are performing better or worse under Common Core.
While Common Core standards may raise standards in some states, the standards are not particularly comparable to the best current state and international standards. In fact, Common Core has caused several states with higher standards to lower them. Instead of some states setting the bar higher and providing a positive example for the rest of the nation, most states will now accept more mediocre and uniform one-size-fits-all standards. For example, until recently California required every 8th grader to take Algebra. The California standard was a tougher requirement than the now-adopted Common Core math standards. There is evidence that this tougher math standard was making California students more college ready in math. Since 1997, California State University freshman enrollment has grown from 25,000 to 55,000, yet the number of freshman students enrolled in remedial math has dropped from 54 percent to 30.5 percent in 2012. It is difficult to understand how lowering math standards under Common Core will make students even more college ready.
Similarly, Massachusetts, one of the most internationally competitive and highest performing states in the nation, has also lowered standards. According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Common Core's English standards reduced by 60 percent the amount of classic literature, poetry and drama that students in Massachusetts will now read.
Even more troublesome for California's expensive investment, it is not clear that standards make a real difference for student achievement in the first place. When the Fordham Foundation was comparing current state standards to the Common Core standards, California received an “A” in English Language Arts, while the Common Core received a “B+.” California received an “A” in mathematics while the Common Core received an “A-.” Yet California remains one of the lowest performing states in the nation.
In the U.S., the Brookings Institute has found no relationship between how individual states perform on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the nation's report card, and the quality of a state's standards. Similarly, the Harvard Kennedy School's Josh Goodman looked at changes in the quality of standards within states over time and found that moving to higher standards did not improve student achievement.
Common Core will restrict choice and innovation in schools. College entrance exams such as the ACT and the SAT plan to benchmark their tests against Common Core, so even private schools are planning to change their curriculum to align with Common Core. Parents will truly have a one-size fits all choice for content in the United States.
Rather than expensive, arbitrary ceilings for national achievement, we should make K-12 function more like higher education in America, where we leave it up to the institutions to find what their strong academic pursuits will be and let parents and students choose the best institutions based on those pursuits.
Lisa Snell is the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. This column originally ran in the Orange County Register.