How Big a Change Are the Common Core Standards?

Recent back-and-forth over the Common Core has focused on the federal role. Receiving less attention is the question of just how big a shift the Common Core standards represent. On that question, UPenn Ed School dean Andy Porter and a trio of grad students have made a signal contribution. In an article in the April Educational Researcher, and then in an exchange in the May issue, they report that the Common Core standards are, for better or worse, pretty dramatically different from what states have in place.

Porter et al. analyze the content of the Common Core using a process called the Survey of Enacted Curriculum (SEC) that Porter created a while back. It entails using a two-dimensional framework to compare how similar or different the Common Core’s topics and cognitive demands are to those of existing state standards. Porter and his team identify 217 topics in math and 163 in English language arts and reading, and five levels of cognitive demands, yielding 1,085 distinct types of content for math and 815 for English language arts. The question is how closely Common Core recommended content and grade-level progressions align with those in place today.

Porter et al. were able to draw on CCSSO analyses of the Common Core standards and of math standards for 27 states and English language arts standards for 24. The findings? Porter et al. observe, “The Common Core standards represent considerable change from what states currently call for in their standards and in what they assess.” Moreover, “[They] are also different from the standards of countries with higher student achievement, and they are different from what U.S. teachers report they are currently teaching.”

The alignment between the Common Core and state standards was 0.25 in math (where 1.0 would be perfect alignment and 0.0 would be no alignment) and 0.30 in reading. Because those low correlations could be due to the fact that the Common Core is just addressing material in a different grade than in a given state, the researchers then aggregated across grades 3-6 and 3-8. That boosted alignment slightly, to 0.35 in math and to 0.38 in reading.

The stark differences between state standards and the Common Core are partly due to differences in topics addressed, but also to the fact that the Common Core emphasizes somewhat different cognitive skills: devoting less time to memorization and performing procedures, and more to demonstrating understanding and analyzing written material.

Turning to existing state assessments, Porter et al. find the average alignment to the Common Core math standards is just 0.19 and 0.17 for reading. They repeated that analysis for the NAEP assessments, finding that the alignment for math is 0.20 in both fourth and eighth grade and for reading is 0.28 in fourth grade and 0.21 in eighth grade. In other words, the SEC analysis finds that the Common Core standards are real different from what’s on state and NAEP tests today.

Porter and his team devoted special attention to benchmarking the Common Core against the Massachusetts content standards–given that Massachusetts is the nation’s top-performing state on NAEP. The only grade level at which they had Mass data common across math and ELA standards was the seventh grade, so they focused there. The seventh grade math alignment between the Mass standards and the Common Core was 0.19. It was 0.13 for ELA. They report, when it comes to math, “The Common Core puts considerably more emphasis on operations, less on basic algebra and geometric concepts, and more on probability.” In English language arts, the Common Core places “substantially” less emphasis on memorization and “somewhat” less on performing procedures, less on reading and language study, and more on writing processes, writing applications, and oral communication. As Porter et al. note, “Whether these differences between Common Core and Massachusetts mean that Common Core represents a better curriculum is difficult to judge, although at least at grade 7 in [English language arts], there is a shift in the Common Core standards toward greater emphasis on higher cognitive demand.”

Finally, Porter et al. take a look at international comparisons, comparing Common Core math standards to the eighth grade standards for Finland, Japan, and Singapore. The alignments are 0.21, 0.17, and 0.13, respectively. The starkest difference in each case is that these countries place much more emphasis on “perform procedures” than do the Common Core standards. On language arts and reading, comparison with standards from Ontario, Finland, Sweden, and New Zealand yielded alignments between 0.09 and 0.37.

So, does this mean that the Common Core’s standards are better than what’s in place, or is this worrisome news? Porter and his colleagues make it clear that it’s hard to know for sure. The Common Core seems to represent “a change for the better” when it comes to “higher order cognitive demand” but the “answer is less clear” when it comes to topics. Ultimately, they make clear that, for good or ill, the Common Core represents not a modest technical exercise, but a serious overhaul of how states approach math and reading instruction. Whether that shift is a promising one is just the sort of thing that deserves an energetic public debate (like the one unfolding today), and that was scarcely evident when states were rushing to sign off on the Common Core in the heat of the Race to the Top steeplechase.

– Frederick Hess

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