After Years of Flat Scores, Idaho Considers Dropping Common Core

Last month Idaho Ed News published an article by Michael Petrilli, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, urging Idaho to stay with the Common Core national curriculum-content standards.

In a sense it is not very surprising that Washington’s beltway actors would want Idaho to stay in their stable of uniform—even if mediocre—national standards. After all, it gets them closer to their goal of centralized federal standards and control for all the country. What was disappointing, however, was the amount of misinformation packed in Petrilli’s advocacy piece.

He starts by describing those “bad old days” when “it was common for upwards of 80% of students to pass state tests, even though the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] indicated that only 20 to 40% of students in a given state were actually proficient.” He then argues that Common Core was introduced “to repair some of these problems.” But were the pre-Common Core days so bad, and did Common Core fix problems? Petrilli is curiously short on the details, so let us have a look.

In the early 2000s the fraction of students nationwide scoring “proficient” on the NAEP—actually a very high bar that a significant fraction of students in high-achieving foreign countries would fail to reach—was about 30 to 32 percent. It peaked during No Child Left Behind and before Common Core at 35 to 42 percent. Common Core was actually put into effect in the states starting after 2013, and since then the percentage of students proficient on the NAEP in reading and in math generally fell across the nation by 2 to 3 points. So much for the “improvement” that Petrilli suggests was created by Common Core.

And what about the claim that in those days “it was common for upwards of 80% of students to pass state tests”? In 2003 only eight states—16 percent of the 50—had passing rates “upwards of 80%.” Is that “common”? There has been some improvement in states setting more uniform passing bars, yet the setting of passing bars and the level of state achievement show essentially zero correlation. In 2005, those “bad old days” before Common Core, the correlation coefficient between state achievement and passing-bar rigor was lower than 3 percent in the best case, effectively showing no relationship between the two. It may be also worthwhile to point out that in Idaho’s Smarter-Balanced Common Core test, “proficiency” is set smack in the middle of NAEP’s “basic” level, rather than at the NAEP “proficient” level Petrilli was talking about. All this speaks to the mediocrity of Common Core standards and the confusion Petrilli sows.

Petrilli then sings the praises of Common Core—for the promotion of which his institute has accepted millions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation since 2010—but without telling the readers that those standards came under scathing critique by many content-area experts for their mediocrity and omissions of important content. In fact, even Massachusetts, the former educational leader among states, experienced a drop in student achievement since it put Common Core into effect. Petrilli neglects to mention that his criticism of the new Florida B.E.S.T standards is based on a review by hand-picked Common Core promoters. Yet a review of those standards by others found them to be “the strongest standard in ELA currently in use in the United States” and standards that “can stand as a new model for the country.”

Idaho educational achievement may look good to some, but this is fool’s gold. This illusion may be comforting, but it is wrong. When one disaggregates Idaho’s achievement by race, it turns out that the state is not doing that well for either its white or minority students—in both cases Idaho students score significantly below the national averages. Idaho will be wise to throw off its shackles of educational mediocrity imposed from Washington through Common Core and chart its path forward following the lead of states like Florida.

Williamson M. Evers is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Educational Excellence at the Independent Institute.
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