Wurman Testimony on Math and Science Standards in Ohio

This testimony was presented before the Ohio House Rules and Reference Committee by Ze’ev Wurman, visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution, on Aug. 20, 2014.

I am a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Between 2007 and 2009 I served as a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education. I served as a commissioner on the California Academic Content Standards Commission that in 2010 evaluated the Common Core’s suitability for California adoption. I have authored multiple academic studies evaluating the Common Core mathematics standards. I am also an executive in a semiconductor start-up company in the Silicon Valley.

In my testimony today I will address the following two points.

• That the Common Core’s reduced rigor in K-8 will directly lead to reduced enrollment particularly of disadvantaged and minority students in advanced mathematics courses in high school, and is bound to harm their chances to pursue challenging and rewarding careers.
• That the Next Generation Science Standards, developed by Achieve and considered for adoption by Ohio, consist of low-level science expectations that do not promote the necessary skills for developing skilled scientists and technologists. They are geared towards making students into technology consumers rather than technology developers.

Rigor of Mathematics in K-8

Since the 1990s, a major thrust in improving our mathematics achievement has been the effort to move an authentic Algebra 1 course from the high school and into grade 8, similar to what high-achieving countries have been doing for a long time. Supporters of this idea include math education reformers, civil right leaders such as Robert Moses, and even President Clinton during his time in office. As the consequence, the nation more than doubled the enrollment of 8th graders in Algebra 1 course since 1990. More recently the Presidential National Mathematics Advisory Panel recommended:

All school districts should ensure that all prepared students have access to an authentic algebra course—and should prepare more students than at present to enroll in such a course by Grade 8.

This call for more prepared students to take early Algebra was echoed in the 2008 clarion call for Common Core, the Benchmarking for Success report written by the three progenitors of the Common Core– National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve Inc. It said:

Action I: Upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12 to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to be globally competitive.

Benchmarking for Success has called, then, for what has later became known as the Common Core State Standards. It then goes on to declare:

Research has revealed striking similarities among the math and science standards in top-performing nations, along with stark differences between those world class expectations and the standards adopted by most U.S. states. … By the eighth grade, students in top performing nations are studying algebra and geometry, while in the U.S., most eighth-grade math courses focus on arithmetic.

Yet when the Common Core standards were published a little more than a year later, in the summer of 2010, they firmly placed the first algebra course in … the high school!

Common Core proponents repeatedly praise it for its “rigor” and how it will prepare children for the “21st Century” and how it will prepare more American students for STEM and increase our competitiveness.  Yet when it comes to the clearest benchmark of rigor and high expectations in K-8, the Common Core not only punted, but it retarded and reversed the progress states made over the last decade or more. Common Core defenders frequently argue that “Kindergarten through seventh grade Common Core standards include all of the prerequisite content students will need to have learned to be prepared for Algebra I in the eighth grade.” If this were true, why did they put the first Algebra course in grade 9 instead?

Other promoters of Common Core argue that Common Core’s 8th grade is “effectively an Algebra class.” Such argument can be voiced only by a mathematically incompetent speakers. Simply comparing the content of grade 8 Common Core with 7th grade California pre-algebra shows that Common Core includes only a single minor algebra standard beyond the pre-algebra course.

Perhaps as importantly to consider is who will be the likely victim of this retreat from high expectations that Common Core dictates. I am here to share with you some data from California, a state whose standards attempted to prepare ALL students for Algebra 1 in grade 8, in an attempt to answer this question.

The increase in early algebra taking in California is quite staggering. While in 1999 only 16 percent of students took early algebra, four times as many, 67 percent, took early Algebra in 2013. This huge increase did not lower that success rate. In fact, the success rates of those students kept rising as their number exploded. To give you a better sense of this growth, the number of successful early algebra takers rose from 52,000 in 2002 to 170,000 in 2013, while the cohort size barely budged.

But it gets better. Because California set up its standards to prepare all students for Algebra in grade 8 and because it attempted to place all those who were ready into such classes, the biggest beneficiaries of this effort were minority and disadvantaged students. While the whole cohort success increased by a factor of three, low SES students and minority students rates of success jumped by factors of five and six–double the rate of the whole cohort.

Even more impressive is the fact that this early Algebra 1 taking directly translated into much higher successful taking of advanced mathematics such as Algebra 2 and Geometry in the high school. As in the case of early Algebra 1, the minorities are the prime beneficiaries, growing at a much faster rate than white students. And the proof is in the pudding: despite almost doubling the fraction that enters the California State University system since late 1990s, the remediation rates in mathematics dropped from over 50 percent to less than 30 percent!

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The key element that enabled this massive surge of minority student success was the rigorous and carefully laid out K-7 standards that prepared everyone for Algebra 1 taking in grade 8. Not every student was ready, but every student that was ready was given a chance to excel and forge ahead, with lasting benefits. And they had full four years of high school to reach not only Algebra 2 but pre-calculus and calculus, to be prepared for selective colleges and STEM.

When challenged, Common Core defenders respond that they plan on maintaining the existing grade 8 algebra classes in the schools. Perhaps they do. Yet who are the students who will enroll in these advanced classes? The regular K-7 Common Core does not prepare students to take Algebra in grade 8, so only students that are pushed by their parents, that are provided extra-curricular often paid tutoring, will be able to make the jump and end-up in those classes. Most minority and disadvantaged students will not get that extra support to accelerate, and whatever is left of those advanced classes will be filled mostly with student coming from affluent families.

The New Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

I have spent much of my adult life in the high technology operations of the Silicon Valley, overwhelmingly surrounded by immigrant engineers from around the globe. So I was excited and hopeful when I heard about the National Research Council (NRC) effort to increase STEM preparedness of our own students. Imagine my disappointment when I saw the low expectations of the NRC Science Framework that begot the NGSS:

The overarching goal of our framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.

In other words, it was the NRC explicit intent to teach our children only science appreciation and make them into “careful consumers,” but it did not intend on making our children science and technology creators. Predictably, based on that Framework, the NGSS defines a pedestrian and unambitious vision of what it expects our students to know. In its own words:

The NGSS do not define advanced work in the sciences. Based on review from college and career faculty and staff, the NGSS form a foundation for advanced work, but students wishing to move into STEM fields should be encouraged to follow their interest with additional coursework.

The Fordham Institute, a strong supporter of national standards and of Common Core, conducted a review of the NGSS and found that it “fails to ensure that that all students will be equipped with sufficient content to make real the option of taking more advanced courses in the core STEM disciplines.” In other words, not only the NGSS doesn’t expects student to master advanced science; it doesn’t even prepare students for subsequent taking of advanced science courses.

Ohio’s graduation requirement call for a minimum of three units of science during high school, one in life sciences, one in physical science, and one of more advanced science. Yet Fordham review found that the necessary “content … in the considered judgment of our reviewers, is largely missing from the NGSS.”

In other words, the NGSS not only don’t prepare students for advanced science courses and STEM disciplines – they don’t even prepare students for Ohio’s current high school graduation requirements. All this is summarized in NGSS’s final grade awarded by Fordham – a “gentleman’s C” – while Ohio’s current standards are judged “clearly superior.”

When it comes to alignment between NGSS and Common Core, Fordham found that “in several cases, where NGSS expectations require math in order to fully understand the science content, the math goes well beyond what students would have learned in classrooms aligned to the Common Core.” Further, “the NGSS themselves fail to integrate math properly into their science performance expectations.” Hence, the review concludes, “the math in the NGSS and the math in the CCSSM are not fully aligned.”


Despite promises to be internationally benchmarked, Common Core reneged on its promise and placed Algebra 1 firmly into the high school, reversing a decade of progress across the land and putting us one or more years behind our international competitors.

One can reasonably ask: if the Common Core is truly dumbed down, why do the test results from pilot states show many more students failing? This apparent contradiction is easily explained once it is understood that while the new breed of tests doesn’t ask much in terms of math knowledge, it expects student to answer in particular ways and formats that are largely unfamiliar to teachers and students. In other words the new tests are not about deeper or broader knowledge of math but rather about the difficulty of guessing what the test makers had in mind and aping the prescribed form of answers.

California data clearly shows that the biggest impact of these dumbed down K-8 expectation will fall on minority and disadvantaged students, who typically do not get the extra-curricular support they need to accelerate.

The default Common Core high school mathematics is misleadingly touted as “college-ready,” yet it will lead at best to community and non-selective colleges. The retarded pace in K-8, and the deficient content in high school, will further restrict the number of qualified students able to pursue STEM careers rather than increase it as promised.

The proposed New Generation Science Standards are flawed and aimed at preparing science and technology consumers rather than technology creators. They offer a false promise of enhancing STEM preparedness, yet in reality they fall significantly below Ohio’s current science standards.

But, perhaps, the biggest tragedy will be that most high school students and parents will now be lulled into a false sense of security when they will hear their child is “on track to be college-ready.”  This will further reduce the pressure on students to reach beyond the diluted Common Core and NGSS offering to acquire adequate college preparedness. Like in the case of elementary grades, minority and disadvantaged students will be particularly hardly hit by this fog of doublespeak about college readiness.

Thank you for your time. I am ready to answer any of your questions.

— Ze’ev Wurman

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