Common Core and College Readiness: There is no disconnect

A survey by the ACT released Thursday claims to identify mismatches between certain skills in the Common Core State Standards and those college instructors consider important for success in higher education.

The survey, which polls K-12 and college teachers and is conducted every few years, notes college instructors would like to see a greater emphasis on generating ideas for writing in English language arts.

In math, 85 percent of elementary school teachers said they still teach some topics not included in the Common Core. Less than half of middle school and high school teachers believe the Common Core is aligned “a great deal” or “completely” with college instructors’ expectations for college readiness, the study says.

“ACT’s findings should not be interpreted as a rebuke of the Common Core,” said Marten Roorda, ACT’s chief executive officer. “However, the data highlight the disconnect between what is emphasized in the Common Core and what some college instructors perceive as important to college readiness.”

ACT has been distancing itself from Common Core, yet maintains on their website that their exam, the ACT Aspire Assessment System, is “aligned to the Common Core State Standards.” As an agency seeking to sell their exam to states, some may see this survey and conflicting statements for what it is, a business strategy and tactic to expand their reach into states that have made moves to tweak their academic standards. To date, only 3 states have chosen to adopt the ACT Aspire and only 3 states requires the ACT in high school.

While the Common Core State Standards are not perfect—no set of academic standards is—they provide clear, consistent learning goals that mark a big step up from most states’ previous criteria.

A 2010 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found Common Core State Standards were an improvement over 32 states’ standards for math and 28 states’ standards for English language arts.

The Fordham report notes that before the Common Core “we repeatedly found few states willing and able to set clear, rigorous, content-rich expectations for students… The Common Core math standards earn a grade of A-minus while the Common Core ELA standards earn a B-plus, both solidly in the honors range. Neither is perfect. Both are very, very strong.”

A 2012 study by William Schmidt and Richard Houang, researchers at Michigan State University, found Common Core State Standards are 90 percent aligned to those of high-performing countries. Like those countries’ models, Common Core drills down on fewer topics so students develop a better mastery of them.

While states are still in the early stages of implementation, most are already having success with the Common Core. An analysis by Achieve this year found a majority of states significantly narrowed their “Honesty Gaps” over the past two years.

“With standards and tests that gauge whether students are able to show they can do grade-level work, parents are provided better information so they can partner with educators to impact student achievement,” the Achieve report notes.

Likewise, a Harvard University study finds after setting mediocre expectations for years, most states “have made a dramatic move forward” with the Common Core. “In short, the Common Core consortium has achieved one of its key policy objectives: the raising of state proficiency standards throughout much of the United States.”

In Tennessee, an early adopter of the Common Core, the percentage of college-bound students requiring remediation has fallen over the past four years. In 2015, 63 percent of Tennessee college freshmen required remediation, down from 77 percent in 2011.

In 2014 Tennessee made the largest improvement in college-readiness rates in more than a decade, which ACT’s president called “indicative of real academic promise.” “The hard work of teachers to implement higher academic standards is having an impact,” said state education commissioner Kevin Huffman of the gains.

Such improvements stand in stark contrast with states like Oklahoma, which opted to repeal and replace the Common Core under political pressure. That ill-advised decision set schools on a path of disruption and ultimately produced a set of standards inferior to the Common Core.

An independent analysis that compared Oklahoma’s resulting education standards to those of 25 other states concluded:

In both content areas the standards fail to serve students, teachers or parents well…[and] will fail to adequately prepare Oklahoma student for postsecondary successWorst of all, these standards will disadvantage Oklahoma students compared to their peers in other states; students in Oklahoma will be less prepared to successfully enter college and careers.

Evidence also demonstrates that consortia assessments aligned to the Common Core outperformed other tests, including the ACT Aspire exam. A two-year study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds consortia exams have the strongest alignment to rigorous content and reflect the skills students need to succeed at higher levels of learning.

Research by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year reaches the same verdict. Consortia assessments, it concludes, do a better job than most states’ old tests by measuring the skills all students need; aligning closely with effective classroom instruction; and including rigorous, grade-appropriate content.

Finally, a study by Mathematica Policy Research finds PARCC is “significantly better” at predicting students’ college readiness than the MCAS, a widely acclaimed exam, and students who met proficiency requirements on PARCC were less likely to require remediation in college.

State leaders have a choice: They can hold the course and continue to support high, consistent classroom expectations through the Common Core, or they can go the way of Oklahoma by reverting back to weaker standards. The Common Core may not be perfect—and that’s why states continue to refine and build on the standards—but it is a strong move in the right direction.