Wurman Testimony on Common Core in Ohio

This testimony was presented before the Education Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives by Ze’ev Wurman, visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution, on November 20, 2013.

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.

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 Common Core’s definition of high school mathematics leading to its so-called “college readiness” is a low level definition that prepares students to attend only community and non-selective colleges, but it does not prepare students to enter either STEM programs or selective state colleges.

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 seminal report Benchmarking for Success written by the three progenitors of the Common Core– National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve Inc. It wrote:

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.

In other words, the rallying cry for the establishment of a common core of content standards in 2008 explicitly acknowledged that for America to be benchmarked against top-performing countries we should teach algebra in the eighth grade.

Yet when the Common Core standards were published a little more than a year later, in the early summer of 2010, they firmly placed the first algebra course at 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.

Even worse, a question one rarely hear asked is who will be the biggest casualty of this retreat from high expectations that the Common Core dictated. 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.

Chart 1 describes the change in Algebra 1 taking by grade 8 in California since 1999. The numbers are staggering – California more than quadrupled the fraction of early algebra takers from 16% to 68%, and the fraction of successful takers tripled since California had scaled scores in 2002. The second part of Chart 1 shows this huge change in absolute numbers: from 52,000 in 2002 to 170,000 successful early Algebra 1 takers last year.

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But the picture gets even 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. The table at the bottom of Chart 1 shows the group breakdown and we can clearly see that 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. This is visible in the top of Chart 2 and, as in the case of early Algebra 1, the minorities are the prime beneficiaries here too, growing at a much faster rate than white students. The center of Chart 2 shows that early Algebra 1 taking also translated into increased successful taking of AP Calculus courses by minority and disadvantaged students.

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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 standard 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 precalculus and calculus.

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 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.

High School Common Core Mathematics Expectations and STEM

As I already mentioned, one of the major rallying cries of the Common Core was to make American students more internationally competitive and more STEM-ready. To that effect Common Core claims to have validated its standards so they are “Reflective of the core knowledge and skills in ELA and mathematics that students need to be college- and career ready.”

Yet the mathematics that the Common Core requires for its college readiness is at the level of a weak Algebra 2 course. Jason Zimba, one of the key writers of the mathematics standards, when he testified in 2010 at the Massachusetts Board of Education explained that Common Core’s definition of readiness is minimal and intended for community and non-selective colleges. At the time he also added that this definition of readiness is “not only not for STEM, it’s also not for selective colleges. For example, for UC Berkeley, whether you are going to be an engineer or not, you’d better have precalculus to get into UC Berkeley.”[1]

And indeed, U.S. Department of Education data shows that students having Algebra 2 as their highest math course have significantly less than 50:50 chance of getting any Bachelor’s degree.[2] Worse, the data also shows that such students have only a one in 50(!) chance to graduate with a STEM degree. Even with a full Trigonometry and Analysis course in high school, which is already beyond what is contained in all four years of Common Core high school mathematics, only one in six students will earn a STEM degree.[3]

Zimba is correct. Data shows that one needs to take at least precalculus in high school to get a better than even odds of finishing a STEM degree. Just recently Zimba has repeated that “[i]f you want to take calculus your freshman year in college, you will need to take more mathematics than is in the Common Core.”

So we are left with a dilemma. Common Core’s college-readiness is at best good for community and non-selective colleges, yet this caveat is never mentioned by its supporters and promoters. In fact, many state colleges have already acquiesced under pressure from their state departments of education and agreed to accept such minimally-ready students into their regular four-year degree programs, and committed not to place them in remedial courses. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict what it will do to the quality of these programs.


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

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 slow and deficient content in high school will further restrict the number of qualified students able to pursue STEM careers rather than increase it as promised.

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 offering and acquire adequate college preparedness. Like in the case of elementary grades, minority and disadvantaged students, who tend to blindly trust the information given out by schools, will be particularly hardly hit by this fog of doublespeak about college readiness.

Thank you for your time.

—Ze’ev Wurman

[1] R.J. Milgram, S. Stotsky, Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM, Pioneer Institute, 2013.
[2] Clifford Adelman, The Toolboox Revisited, Table 5. U.S. Department of Education, 2006.
[3] STEM in Postsecondary Education: Entrance, Attrition, and Coursetaking Among 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students, Table 7. National Center for Education Statistics, 2012. NCES 2013-152

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