I am delighted to rediscover my inner policy wonk as a first-year member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). But the fun of digging into data does little to mitigate my dismay over today’s release of the 2015 Mathematics Results at Grade 12 from The Nation’s Report Card. Only a quarter of the representative nationwide sample of 12th graders who took the assessment last year scored at or above the Proficient level of skill. Only a quarter of our high school graduates demonstrated what is defined as “solid academic performance”? Yikes--that is very worrisome. Equally troubling is the realization that 12th-grade math scores have remained essentially unchanged for over a decade, while reading scores have decreased by five points since 1992, the earliest year with comparable 12th grade data.
Achievement gaps appear in these newest NAEP results just as they have for other grade levels and subjects. Forty-seven percent of Asian students and 32 percent of white students scored proficient or above, compared with only 7 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students. Students from families with lower incomes persistently perform lower than those from families with higher income.
A quick look at results from the survey questions that accompany the 12th grade test reveals that a whopping 78 percent of 12th graders have never taken computer programming in high school. One bright spot given efforts to increase diversity in the tech workforce is that black students seem most likely among their peers to have taken computer programming, although this holds for only 29 percent of black 12th graders.
But there’s more troubling news. In 2013, NAGB began using NAEP to estimate the percentage of grade 12 students who possess the knowledge and skills to be prepared for first-year college coursework. In 2013, an estimated 39 percent were ready to succeed in credit-bearing coursework. In 2015, an estimated 37 percent were prepared for first-year college mathematics courses. It doesn’t say much for our education system when just over a third of our high school graduates are ready for post-secondary education, whether it is a certificate, a two-year institution or a 4-year college.
Change the Equation was launched in 2010 with the goal of helping ensure that all young people graduate from high school STEM literate. They don’t all have to become engineers or computer scientists or chemists, but they need STEM knowledge to pursue whatever career is most enticing. We know that nearly every career paying a living wage requires some post-secondary education. Seeing that the majority of our high school graduates are not prepared is more bad news. The business community often thinks about its progress in terms of quarterly reports. Does the education community think about progress in terms of quarter centuries? Yes, we have to take the long view when we try to improve something as complex as America’s education system, but at some point the nation’s patience will understandably run out.
Two new studies send mixed messages about how well higher state standards and new state tests are changing the equation in preparing young people for college and careers.
First, the good news. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute concluded that the content and quality of tests that judge how well students have mastered Common Core standards “have largely delivered on their promises.” The study evaluated four different English and math tests that 30 states are using to measure mastery of the Common Core.
Overall, the study concludes, while there are opportunities for refinements, the tests are rigorous and well aligned with the standards—and “major improvements” over previous generations of tests. Bravo!
Now, the downside. States remain all over the map when it comes to proficiency rates (in other words, the scores students need to pass those new and improved tests). A study by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that, even though 30 states use tests aligned to the Common Core, only a handful set proficiency rates as high as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a common benchmark for rigor.
As AIR points out, states embraced common high standards “partly to establish more rigor and uniformity in what students should know to be on track for college or career as they approach high school graduation.” While the rigor of many new tests is heartening, the lack of uniformity in state expectations for proficiency is troubling.
Where do we go from here? As we’ve argued from the get-go, implementing high standards to prepare all young people for a competitive world was never going to be easy. We’re not in the clear yet—not by a long shot. Low proficiency standards perpetuate the lie that most high school graduates are equally prepared for career pathways that lead to good jobs. Students and parents have been paying the steepest price for that lie. They should not have to find out after graduation, when it’s too late, that college and rewarding careers are out of reach.
The Fordham researchers took on this central question: Are the new tests good and worth fighting for? Indeed, they are. The challenge now is to raise expectations for performance on most states’ tests. Business leaders must keep up the pressure in their states to ensure that all high school graduates are justifiably confident that they are ready to take on the world.
Regardless of where you stand on the Common Core State Standards, the antics of some state lawmakers who are trying to overturn them should scare you. Do you really want politicians dictating what gets taught in American classrooms?
No one should feel safe when lawmakers make momentous decisions on the basis of unfounded rumors. A new effort in the Ohio legislature offers a case in point. Not only would House Bill 597 scrap Common Core standards in math and English, it would also scrap the state’s science and social studies standards, adopt Massachusetts standards for two years, and then mandate the creation of new Ohio standards by 2017. That’s right, Ohio’s teachers and children would have to cope with three different sets of standards in just four years. That’s an awful lot of chaos to endure in the name of trumped-up charges against Common Core.
Much of HB 597 is simply unmoored to reality. Why, for example, does the bill undo the science and social studies standards the state adopted only three years ago? It seems one of the bill’s sponsors was told that those standards are simply the Common Core in sheep’s clothing: “Someone said they are Common Core but they just aren’t calling them that.”
Golly, someone said that? Well then, let’s drop those standards, too, upend years’ worth of work, and squander many millions of dollars. Apparently, hearsay is justification enough for policies that affect millions of children.
Of course, anyone with an internet connection and ten minutes to spare would learn that there is no such thing as Common Core science or social studies standards, but that hardly matters.
Yet this isn’t merely a case of some feckless leaders basing big decisions on little or no evidence. The Common Core fight is giving some ideologues an opportunity to reignite battles that have little or nothing to do with Common Core. The new Ohio science standards proposed in HB 597 could, for example, open the door to creationism in science class. Efforts to overturn Common Core can become a Trojan horse for a much broader set of agendas.
I recognize that reasonable people can have principled objections to Common Core—even if I disagree with some of those objections. Yet if reasonable Common Core opponents simply stand back and let the standards succumb to baseless rumors or political witch hunts, their own cherished ideals might become the next target of zealots with an ax to grind.
The passage of HB 597 would surely embolden more activists from across the political spectrum to take on science and social studies standards, curriculum, teaching tools, and who knows what else. We already have too many examples of what happens when schools become battlegrounds in the culture wars.
So even if you don’t like Common Core, don’t root for HB 597 or similarly misguided efforts in other states. You might regret it.
We all know that the state of math in the U.S. is not strong. In fact, thirty-nine states' math standards were deemed "clearly inferior" to those laid out in Common Core. What's more, zero states' math standards were found to be "clearly superior" to Common Core math standards. With achievement standards being so varied across states, only some American students are getting the foundational math knowledge that they deserve.
For more facts and figures on Common Core standards (and a whole lot more), browse our growing catalog of STEMtistics and use them in your next presentation to help make the case for STEM education.
As students head back to school and back to higher standards in math and science, we're highlighting outstanding STEMworks programs that help teachers prepare them for success. From lesson plans to lab materials, these STEMworks programs equip teachers with tools and resources to bring math and science alive in their classrooms.
Check out our September Spotlight programs:
AMSTI: The Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) is the Alabama Department of Education's initiative to improve math and science statewide.
ASSET: Achieving Student Success through Excellence in Teaching (ASSET) STEM Education inspires innovation and excellence in STEM by providing highly effective educator professional development, hands-on classroom materials and consulting services to schools, universities and organizations.
Science in Motion: SIM is a consortium of 12 colleges and universities that provides high-tech laboratory experiments to many school districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
WISE: WISE is an open-source online platform for designing, developing, and implementing science inquiry activities.