Will Common Core Standards Improve Student Performance?

Common Core standards are here. They may have standardized some subject matter, but will they improve student performance? It depends on whom you ask.

Implementation of the Common Core State Standards is well underway in Delaware schools, but debate about them is far from finished. And as campaign season heats up, discussion about Common Core will likely escalate.

Seven of the 45 states that initially adopted the standards have already repealed or amended them. The debate now centers on whether or not the Common Core can improve learning and prepare students for a career after high school. 

Depending on the stakeholder, the answer is yes. Or no. Or, well, it depends. The potential, most agree, is there. But several factors will influence its success, including curricula, the assessment and public perception.

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Reforming reforms

Learning standards are nothing new. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pushed standard-based reform. Each state established its own set of standards, however, “so a student in California may have been learning something different in third grade than a student in Mississippi was learning in fourth,” says Alison May, public information officer for the Delaware Department of Education. 

The goal behind the Common Core—developed by a panel of teachers, administrators and experts—is to establish uniformity of subject matter among the states that voluntarily adopt the standards for math and English. 

The standards were also designed to help students prepare better for college. According to a National Assessment of Educational Progress analysis, 35 percent to 40 percent of high school graduates require remedial classes. They require tuition, but they don’t yield credit. 

Advocates also say the Common Core, which pulled from international benchmarks, will help students develop the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills required to succeed in a global economy. 

“Employers have more choices than they ever have before about hiring,” says Gov. Jack Markell, a former co-chair of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. “They have a skilled workforce from all over the world from which to choose. We have to make sure that the expectations of our kids are sufficiently high and they will be able to compete successfully for these jobs.”

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Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, founded in 1999 to improve Delaware’s public schools, says the Common Core standards are necessary. “I think it’s incredibly important,” he says. Delaware’s previous standards likely were too low, notes Herdman, who taught school in the 1980s, when teachers didn’t know what students studied from grade to grade, let alone from district to district. 

Sharon Walpole, a professor in the University of Delaware College of Education and Human Development, is also a proponent of higher standards. “I really like it in literacy, because we’re teaching students in younger grades to read much more challenging text than they did before,” says Walpole, coauthor of “Cracking the Common Core: Choosing and Using Texts in Grades 6-12.” 

Common Core standards are also more focused, May says. In English language arts, for example, Delaware went from about 200 stated expectations in each grade to 32, making them more about “depth rather than breadth,” she says. 

Stacie Zdrojewski, a fifth-grade teacher at Richey Elementary School in Newport, agrees. “Under previous standards, students often knew a little bit about a lot of topics, but had few deep understandings of the topics covered,” she says.

Because Common Core is not a curriculum, districts and schools determine what and how to teach subjects so that students meet the standards.

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And there’s the rub. 

“Most major education reforms in the United States are not implemented well and consequently do not succeed by any measure,” says James Hiebert, a professor in the University of Delaware’s School of Education. “Indications are that many states and school districts do not have wise implementation plans in place.”

A time of transition

Some Delaware schools began adapting curricula to the Common Core before 2013. Others struggled to get programs up and running. “Implementation, depending upon the state—and even depending on the district—has been smoother in some places than others,” Markell acknowledges. 

To help educators, the state formed Common Ground for the Common Core, which includes materials and lessons. A gathering in Dover in 2013 attracted more than 700 educators to exchange ideas. “Some districts have taken advantage of it and some have not,” Markell says. “It’s voluntary.” 

Implementation has been a “rough road” for the 1,200 teachers in the Red Clay Consolidated School District, says Mike Matthews, a seventh-grade teacher and president of the Red Clay Education Association. Teachers weren’t given enough training and materials to implement what he calls the “extreme shift” in standards. 

Because textbook publishers are still playing catch-up, teachers must create their own resources or find those that can supplement the available curricula, Zdrojewski says. Textbooks and new math programs don’t come cheap, and it’s especially challenging for districts with tight budgets to purchase new materials, Walpole says.

Teachers also are adjusting their approaches. “If you walked around a middle school or high school [before], you would see nearly no reading and writing going on,” Walpole says. “Instruction was very teacher-delivered, listener-driven.” 

Common Core stresses reading and writing and the ability to think critically. Walpole consequently expects to see more of both in class rather than outside of it. 

Instead of simply memorizing facts, students now talk and write about what they’ve learned to demonstrate a deeper understanding. During a visit to a first-grade classroom in Lancashire Elementary School, Markell saw children reading a story. Instead of asking them what happened, he says, the teacher asked the students why they thought it happened.

Zdrojewski, for one, enjoys the challenge of teaching students to think at a higher level. “I am working harder than ever, but I am prouder than ever of my students and what we’re accomplishing together.”

She often encounters people who think Common Core is teaching “new things,” especially when it comes to math. On the “Today” show, a segment featured a math problem that had gone viral on social media. The problem asked students to explain why 5×3=15. One student wrote that 5+5+5=15. The teacher reportedly admonished the student for not also writing that 3+3+3+3+3=15. Though heavily linked by the show to Common Core, the math problem is a method to encourage critical thinking. It is not a Common Core standard itself. 

Hiebert says Common Core math standards are a step forward. Like writing and reading standards, they focus on fewer topics for longer periods at each grade level. The goal, he says, is to reduce the need to go over the same material again—a “refresher,” if you will—in the next grade. 

But Dana Lorenz says her children grew bored after repeatedly studying the same concept, even if they studied it from different angles. She put them in private school this year. Lorenz also resigned as a special education teacher in the Appoquinimink School District because it was too challenging to meet her students’ needs and teach them Common Core-aligned lessons. “For kids who were already behind, it was difficult to also make sure they’re getting the Common Core,” she says.

Lorenz does not like what she sees as government interference in education. She’s not alone. Many believe the Common Core is the federal government’s attempt to impose a universal ideology in state schools. Not so, Markell says. “The people who’ve made this very political have had success with creating noise around this issue,” he maintains. “I was there from the beginning, and it’s absolutely not true.” 

He says the bipartisan Common Core State Initiative was launched primarily to avoid future federal interference in state education systems. While standards of some sort are federally mandated, the Common Core, a licensed program, is not—though it is becoming hard to convince people to believe it.

Putting it to the test

Assessment testing is a federal requirement, and it’s another bugaboo that could affect the Common Core’s success—or the perception of its success. The new Smarter Balanced Assessment is aligned with the Common Core. “People generally don’t like testing,” Markell says. “But the assessments can be a very valuable tool for our educators and for families.” 

Matthews, of the Red Clay Education Association, agrees that tests are valuable if the data are put to good use. He is not a fan, however, of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which does not rely on only multiple-choice questions with just one correct response. Some questions call for more than one choice. There might be drawing, writing or editing. “I don’t think it’s valid or reliable,” Matthews says.

Schools with large populations of special-needs or low-income students are more likely to be labeled for a poor performance, which can lead to criticism instead of support, he says. In such schools, educators must first grapple with students’ emotional and socio economic issues—such as hunger or high crime—which influence their ability to learn. 

The parent of a special-needs child, Kevin Ohlandt says the Smarter Balanced Assessment is unfair to such students. “Tests that take away points if you don’t write the answer correctly as per their specifications—that’s not a situation I think children should be put into,” says Ohlandt, who writes the blog Exceptional Delaware: Helping Parents Navigate Through the Destruction of Public Education. This year, he put his child in private school.

The strong anti-test sentiment has led to a national opt-out testing movement. Last summer, Markell vetoed HB50, which was written to give parents or guardians of students the right to opt out of the annual standardized test. Rep. John Kowalko, who introduced the bill, hasn’t given up on its passage. “I intend and I hope that we will be able to override that veto” in the next legislative session of the General Assembly, which starts this month, says the Newark Democrat.

The bill might seem redundant, considering it’s not illegal for parents to opt a child out of a test. “We needed a policy in place that reassures parents it’s OK” to opt out, Kowalko explains. According to the bill, schools would notify parents about their rights before tests are administered. Oregon has passed similar legislation.

But without accurate data from an independent source that encompasses most of the student population, educators can’t identify achievement gaps that will help them accurately direct services and funds, says Herdman. 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Disability Rights Network and the National Urban League opposed opt-out last year. They wrote that, in the past, schools sent low-performing children home or to other rooms on test day so scores would be inflated by better students. Hiding achievement gaps, the organizations argued, meant the students didn’t get the help they need. Opt-out, they claimed, can produce the same warped results.

There are other potential consequences. According to federal law, states must test at least 95 percent of its public school students, both overall and in specific populations, such as low-income or special-education students, to determine how well a school’s curricula are serving all students. 

In August, The New York Times reported that more than 200,000 third-through-eighth-grade students sat out the state’s standardized test—20 percent of those eligible to be tested. New York, one of the first to have a test based on Common Core standards, was in talks with the U.S. Department of Education to avoid possible sanctions. 

To avoid that happening in Delaware, the Department of Education is recommending that schools lose points on a proposed “scorecard” if they fail to have enough students taking the test. Again, critics says, such a measure could hurt a school’s reputation, which is an issue, given the large number of charter schools, choice and private schools in the northern part of the state.

Some support opt-out legislation in part because they believe there is too much testing. Markell agrees. He says districts across the state are inventorying the number of assessments that students take in order to determine which ones provide real value. The goal is to reduce the number of tests students take.

It is important that schools demonstrate they’re making progress toward meeting the standards, and tests are one way to do that, says James Boyd, chair of teacher preparation in the College of Education at Wilmington University. But the convergence of the new standards, a new test and new teaching tools is adding stress to the system. “To introduce a new set of standards and within months have high stakes testing—that’s not fair,” he says.

Hiebert wonders why the standards weren’t rolled out in the same manner as language immersion programs, which start in kindergarten and first grade, then progress as the students advance. But that would preclude students in second or third grades. “If you were a 7-year-old, we didn’t want you to lose out on your next nine or 10 years worth of education,” Markell says. “All kids deserve this.”

Fifth-grade teacher Zdrojewski says teaching students to have a deeper understanding of the material “cannot be a bad thing.” As more students come up from kindergarten immersed in the learning approaches, they will be better equipped to meet the standards.

So will the Common Core succeed?

Zdrojewski says yes. “I think we will see this greater depth of knowledge transfer to higher tests scores in the very near future.”

But Boyd wonders if the Common Core can beat the bad rap it’s received. “I don’t think people can separate it from the stigma surrounding testing,” he says.

It will work to the extent that schools build curricula aligned with it, Walpole says. Hiebert agrees. The Common Core can improve scores on tests aligned with the standards “in the long run.”

The real question, perhaps, is how long will educators, parents and legislators wait? “Every time the ink dries on the syllabi for our education classes,” Boyd says, “there’s another set of standards.”

All information in included charts is the most current available from the Delaware Department of Education. 

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