Study Says: Common Core State Standards May Not Translate to Student Achievement

A look at why curriculum reform may need to be reexamined.

Core state standards

New study suggests educators and politicians should reexamine the effectiveness of common core state standards. (Photo: Mel Yates)

Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

As states prepare to adopt Common Core State Standards, educators and politicians should take a step back to reevaluate whether these standards actually impact achievement, curriculum, and teaching.

According to a new study, changes over the last 20 years to state standards have had little influence on overall student achievement.

The study’s author, Joshua Goodman at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of School of Government, makes the case that standards have not been properly linked to success except in schools where teaching is poor.

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“Given the immense amount of time and money being spent on such efforts, it is surprising how little evidence policymakers and educators have on the impact of such standards on student achievement,” Goodman writes in his paper. “Little is known...about how the quality of written standards translates into improvements in curriculum, pedagogy and student achievement.”

Goodman, who was previously a public high school math teacher, studied state-level data on student achievement from 1994 to 2011. He examined “correlating achievement shifts with corresponding shifts in the quality of each state’s written standards,” according to a press release.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is based on a theory that a high school diploma means very little, especially when graduates compete globally with international peers, if certain goals cannot be met. The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) are leading the initiative.

Forty-five of the 50 states are part of the initiative. Texas, Nebraska, Virginia and Alaska are not adopting the standards. Minnesota rejected the math standards but approved the ones in English and Language Arts.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of conservative state legislators and academics who believe in limited government, are opposed to the Common Core standards.

According to the Common Core website, the standards “define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.”

The complex standards aren’t necessarily concerned about how teachers should teach, but rather what skills and knowledge students should have. For example, the standards are stacked, meaning each year’s curriculum builds on the previous one. Students should also learn the same uniform information no matter where they attend school. In turn, standards can aid students and parents in academic goal setting.  

But teaching in such a manner might not influence test scores, which is also a key component of K-12 success rates.

Goodman’s research shows that fourth grade test scores show little improvement in response to these standards regardless of poverty, race, and academic achievement.

That improves somewhat when Goodman examined variables in the eighth grade groups. States where test scores were lower improved in math standards for black and Hispanic students and in English for lower income students.

“Improved math standards do, however, raise the math achievement of 8th graders, particularly for low-scoring students,” he writes in his study. “Given the known weaknesses of U.S. middle schools, this result suggests that standards may be beneficial in settings where achievement would otherwise be low.”

Other findings include:

  • Standards matter most for low-scoring students in low-scoring states.
  • Teachers and administrators may be unaware of or unresponsive to the standards. Therefore, a need for better communication is essential.
  • Schools may be better at initiating their own standards and states may not need to intervene in many cases.

To conclude, a closer examination of the common core initiatives may be needed before they are broadly implemented.

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