The common core’s impact on student achievement may have peaked early and already tapered off, according to a new analysis of national test scores by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.
“Most people when they think about common core, they think we won’t see an impact for 10 years,” said Tom Loveless, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the report. “This is telling me the opposite.”
Most states adopted the common standards in 2010, although they may not have fully implemented them in classrooms for some time after. According to this year’s Brown Center Report on American Education, 4th and 8th grade students in states that adopted the Common Core State Standards outperformed their peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2009 and 2013. But between 2013 and 2015, students in non-adoption states made larger gains than those in common-core states.
This means that “common core may have already had its biggest impact,” said Loveless.
However, other experts say it’s still much too early to be drawing conclusions about how the common core is affecting student assessment data. States are in all different stages of implementation, said Mike Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education. “At least speaking only for California, in the early part, we were doing very little,” he said. “We were in such a primitive state of implementation. There isn’t enough treatment to do the measurement.”
The report, the 15th in the Brown Center series, also looks at whether the common-core standards really are altering classroom instruction—and finds evidence that they are.
The common core aims to get students reading more nonfiction than they have previously. In 4th grade, about half the texts students read should be fiction and half should be nonfiction, the standards say. By 8th grade, the balance should tip toward nonfiction.
Looking at NAEP survey data, Loveless found that many teachers appear to be making this change. In 8th grade, just 25 percent of teachers said they put a heavy emphasis on nonfiction reading in 2009. Six years later, that share was up to 36 percent. “The dominance of fiction is waning,” writes Loveless.
Math and Course-Taking
The study also shows that 4th grade teachers are not teaching as much data and geometry as they did previously—a shift that also aligns with the common core.
And the common core may be changing 8th graders’ course-taking habits, the study finds. For decades, there have been concerted efforts in many places to get more 8th graders taking Algebra I, traditionally a high school course. But Loveless writes that, “from 2011 to 2013, the relative growth of advanced courses stopped dead in its tracks.” Then between 2013 and 2015, 8th graders’ enrollment in Algebra I declined from 48 percent to 43 percent, according to NAEP data, while enrollment in general math increased.
That’s likely because the common core delineates a single 8th grade math course for all students, Loveless explains.
Common-core experts have noted that the 8th grade math course is a much tougher course than what was traditionally taught at that level—it now includes many concepts that students used to learn in Algebra I. So getting to advanced math early is now a tougher climb.
Overall, Loveless says these findings in 4th and 8th grades indicate that “curriculum and instruction are changing at the ground level of schooling.”
That’s not a hugely surprising finding, many say. But the Brown Center analysis likely doesn’t tell the whole story. The NAEP teacher survey data on implementation is all self-reported, and the study only looks at small slices of the common core at two grade levels.
“It’s interesting to see [common core] is grabbing hold,” said Kirst. “However, what he has is pretty superficial. Common core features analysis, synthesis, interpretation, modeling, communication, extrapolation. … [For a full picture of implementation] you’d have to measure really deeply how things are being taught and changed and what’s going on in classrooms in terms of instruction at a deeper level than this report has.”
In analyzing how NAEP scores and common-core implementation are linked, Loveless divided states into three categories: strong implementers, medium implementers, and nonadopters of the common core.
States that planned to have fully implemented the English/language arts common-core standards by the end of the 2012-13 school year were considered strong implementers. “I used that as a proxy for the level of commitment state officials had to implementing the standards,” Loveless explained. Those with slower adoption timelines were in the medium category.
However, some experts have questioned those labels.
“Frankly, the timeline states set up may or may not have a relationship to when the standards were implemented in classrooms,” said Mike Cohen, the president of Achieve, which led the development of the common-core standards.
The nonadopters category includes seven states, three of which initially adopted but then reversed that decision.
Indiana and South Carolina both reversed adoption, but then ended up approving new standards that look very similar to the common core. “If you count Indiana as a nonadopter but don’t look at the standards, you’re not characterizing it the right way,” said Cohen.
Loveless said it’s a “legitimate concern” that the nonadopters ended up with common-core-like standards. “But what went on in Indiana was a political controversy, which even if they winded up adopting the same standards and giving them a different name, that controversy may have had an impact on classrooms and curriculum,” he said.
Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which facilitated the development of the common core, pointed out that all states have raised the expectations for students in recent years—even those that never adopted the common core. In terms of common core versus noncommon-core states, “we’re not really looking at it that way anymore,” he said.
And yet despite those higher expectations, NAEP scores overall declined from 2013 to 2015—for the first time in about two decades. “We weren’t celebrating in the early years of NAEP” after states raised their standards, said Minnich. “The bigger thing for us is the longer-term view of performance.”
Other critics of the Brown Center report noted that NAEP may not be the best means for measuring the common core’s effect. A recent report by the NAEP Validity Studies Panel, an independent panel run by the American Institutes for Research, found that NAEP is reasonably, though not entirely, aligned with the common core. For 4th grade math, the researchers found that 79 percent of NAEP’s test items matched material from the common-core standards at or below that grade level.
“There’s real dispute as to whether NAEP is an appropriate and complete assessment to measure common core,” said Kirst. “If we’re teaching stuff in 5th grade that they’re testing in 4th grade, that’s a problem.”
Loveless agreed NAEP may not be a perfect measure. “There’s some truth to that,” he said, “but we don’t have any other national assessment to judge what’s going on.”