Can Higher Standards Survive?

On the campaign trail, Senator Ted Cruz reliably wins applause with a call to “repeal every word of Common Core.” It’s a promise he will be hard-pressed to keep should he find himself in the White House next January. Aside from the bizarre impracticality of that comment as phrased (which words shall we repeal first? “Phonics”? “Multiplication”? Or “Gettysburg Address”?), the endlessly debated, frequently pilloried standards are now a deeply entrenched feature of America’s K–12 education landscape—love ’em or hate ’em.

higher standardsCommon Core has achieved “phenomenal success in statehouses across the country,” notes Education Next. In a study published last month, the periodical found that “thirty-six states strengthened their proficiency standards between 2013 and 2015, while just five states weakened them.” That’s almost entirely a function of Common Core.

Education Next began grading individual states’ standards in 1995, comparing the extent to which their state tests’ definition of proficiency aligned with the gold-standard National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment (often referred to as “the nation’s report card”). That year, six states received an A grade. As recently as four years ago, only Massachusetts earned that distinction. Today, nearly half of all states, including the District of Columbia, have earned A ratings. More tellingly, only one state (Texas) was given a D.

Things look very different today. Unfortunately, many states have chosen to go their own way on annual tests, robbing Common Core of one of its main selling points: the ability to compare test results across state lines. Yet over half are still part of the two main Common Core testing consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced. A new report from my colleagues at the Fordham Institute suggests that the tests our children now sit for are considerably more challenging than those taken by their older siblings a few short years ago. “They tend to reflect the content deemed essential in the Common Core standards and demand much from students cognitively. They are, in fact, the kind of tests that many teachers have asked state officials to build for years,” note authors Nancy Doorey and Morgan Polikoff. “Now they have them.”

In short, and in short order, academic standards are much richer in content and intellectual rigor than they were two or three years ago. Consequently, the bar for proficiency is higher. Despite withering political attacks, the line has held. The question now is, for how long?

Given the enormous investments that many states have made to implement higher standards—spanning everything from professional development to the new tests themselves—there will likely be no wholesale retreat from Common Core. But that doesn’t mean there can’t or won’t be a slow bleeding out of rigor and quality. Raising standards is easy; meeting them is hard. “Enforcing” them, or supporting them in a meaningful accountability system, remains a challenge. Only the most pie-eyed optimist would envision the vast majority of American children suddenly soaring to proficiency as a pure function of raised standards. The best-case scenario would be far more children graduating from high school genuinely prepared for college, some manner of post-secondary education or training, or the workforce. But that will require the work of years, even decades.

A second good outcome that time might reveal is a general recognition that our education system has a comprehensive capacity shortage at every level. John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, famously observed, “Sports do not build character, they reveal it.” Higher standards and proficiency levels could be used to produce a “Wooden effect”; that is, they might reveal much about state and district education systems—from the effectiveness of curricula to the efficacy of our schools of education, which still train the vast majority of the nearly four million teachers in American classrooms.

With the adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are ostensibly back in the driver’s seat on testing and accountability. In theory, they should be less likely to set low proficiency standards, since they no longer need to fear federal penalties in any but the most dire cases. But not all pressure comes from the top. Attention must be paid to the “opt-out” movement that has roiled New York, New Jersey, Colorado and other states. It’s anyone’s guess how much patience parents will have with more than half of children being labeled below proficient—especially if the source of test pressures merely shifts from Washington, D.C. to the fifty state capitals. In a perfect world, high standards and challenging proficiency levels would prompt pushy parents to demand more from schools, districts, and state policy makers. But with natural alliances between educators and parents born of proximity—parents generally trust their kids’ teachers—it might be easier to simply blame “inappropriate” standards and “meaningless” tests. Stay tuned. Politicians risk a major backlash at the polls if they send out too much bad news, flunk too many kids, or give F ratings to too many schools.

The bottom line is that, for the time being, a new normal has been created with extraordinary speed across much of the country. Whether it sticks or suffers the death of a thousand cuts comes down to two questions: Does the political will exist to maintain higher standards for the long haul? And does the capacity exist in K–12 education at large to raise significant numbers of American children to meet these definitions of “proficiency?” The real test of Common Core comes when the answer to either of these questions is no.

Much of what we know about our state education systems is about to be put to the test. But the biggest test of all will be that of our appetite for honesty.

— Robert Pondiscio

This was originally published in a slightly different form by U.S. News & World Report. It also appears on the Common Core Watch blog.

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