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Despite Common Core Promises, U.S. Kids Repeat Poor Performance On Latest Global Test


Add another set of test results to the stack deflating promises U.S. leaders said justified the major arm-twisting required to switch the nation to Common Core. On Tuesday, the latest results from a respected international test showed U.S. students making no progress in math or reading since the last such exam three years ago.

This trend of no improvement on math and reading has persisted since the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) began in 2000, although U.S. kids have improved in science on the exam, which is given to 15-year-olds. Common Core, a set of national curriculum, testing, and instruction mandates the Obama administration pressured states into beginning in 2009, dictates reading and math instruction, not science.

American kids were, predictably, the worst at math. In the latest results, just 8 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds rated of excellent proficiency in math, and 27 percent rated of poor proficiency. Both of these results were below the average of comparable students’ performance developed nations.

PISA is considered “is considered a barometer of future economic competitiveness,” as The Wall Street Journal notes, because students’ reading and especially math abilities are linked with their future earnings. Math achievement is a strong predictor of gross domestic product, according to a 2016 Harvard University study. Even small increases in average U.S. math achievement, the study found, could boost American’s incomes and productivity by trillions of dollars. This is just one of many opportunity costs of rushing headlong into unproven fancies like Common Core.

“The U.S. ranking improved in all three subjects to eighth in reading, 30th in math and 11th in science, when compared with 63 other educational systems that reported data in 2015 and 2018. But Ms. [Peggy] Carr[, a U.S. federal education official,] said the improved rankings are due to score changes with other education systems,” reported WSJ.

The less atrocious reading scores are thus not much cause for celebration. And the kids at the bottom were, as always, hit hardest. According to The New York Times, “About a fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old, according to Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the exam. Those students, he said, face ‘pretty grim prospects’ on the job market.”

“In the U.S., about 13.5% of students were good at distinguishing between fact and opinion on the reading exam,” WSJ reported. “Most countries have seen little improvement in scores over the past decade, despite increases in education spending, according to OECD.”

This Is Not an Outlier Result for the Common Core Era

It’s been a decade since President Obama announced federal grants in return for states jumping into Common Core before it was even written. Common Core didn’t move fully into place until about 2015, though, so we had to wait a while to see if its critics were right. But since then, just about all the evidence available has shown that at best Common Core has had none of the promised positive effects on student achievement, and likely includes demonstrable negative effects.

On the latest U.S. tests for fourth and eighth graders in reading and math, as I wrote in October, “For the third time in a row since Common Core was fully phased in nationwide, U.S. student test scores on the nation’s broadest and most respected test have dropped, a reversal of an upward trend between 1990 and 2015. Further, the class of 2019, the first to experience all four high school years under Common Core, is the worst-prepared for college in 15 years, according to a new report.”

This spring, a federally funded study done by pro-Common Core researchers found, to their surprise, “that [Common Core] had significant negative effects on 4th graders’ reading achievement during the 7 years after the adoption of the new standards, and had a significant negative effect on 8th graders’ math achievement 7 years after adoption based on analyses of NAEP composite scores.”

“The study found not only lower student achievement since Common Core, but also performed data analysis suggesting students would have done better if Common Core had never existed. The achievement declines also grew worse over time,” I wrote this spring.

In 2018, we also saw declines among U.S. college entrance exam results:

ACT scores released earlier this month show that students’ math achievement is at a 20-year low. The latest English ACT scores are slightly down since 2007, and students’ readiness for college-level English was at its lowest level since ACT’s creators began measuring that item, in 2002. Students’ preparedness for college-level math is at its lowest point since 2004.

In 2017, I noted the achievement decline of American kids on another international test, this one about reading: “The decline was even more pronounced among the lowest-performing American students. On this test, U.S. students have made no statistically significant improvement since 2001. The 2016 slide is especially notable because 2016’s fourth graders have spent virtually their entire schooling inside public schools forced to shift their instruction to fit Common Core.”

In 2015, former U.S. Department of Education official Ze’ev Wurman discussed early warning signs on a raft of other important tests:

The recent 2015 NAEP [Nation’s Report Card national] results showed a first ever significant decline of 2-3 points – about a quarter of a grade-level worth – in mathematics at both grades 4 and 8, and in grade 4 reading. The decline was broad and deep in most states with just a handful of exceptions, and even formerly excellent states like Massachusetts were not immune. But NAEP scores are only the most recent sign of decline.

The ACT scores have been stagnant in the last couple of years, but they show a slight decline since 2009. The SAT scores stayed level since 2007, until they dropped this year on both verbal and math.

AP course taking in AB and BC calculus has been rising steadily over the years, yet the number of students who scored a passing grade this year – 3 and above – has plateaued in BC calculus and actually declined in AB calculus for many demographic groups.

We Were Scammed, America

In 2009, President Obama described Common Core as “higher and clearer standards and assessments that prepare a student to graduate from college and succeed in life.” He promised that his package of reforms centered on Common Core would “raise the quality of education from kindergarten through senior year” and that “America’s children, America’s economy, and America itself will be better for it.” Almost a decade later, the results are in, and the promises broken.

In 2010, Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan promised the nation that Common Core and it’s associated tests would be a “game-changer in K-12 education.”

“High standards and high expectations are the first step toward higher performance,” he assured a convention of newspaper editors in 2013, giving the example from Tennessee to support his contention that Common Core would reduce achievement gaps between the United States’ top and bottom students. The opposite has happened: On PISA, the latest National Assessment for Educational Progress, and other test results, the gap has only grown since Common Core.

It wasn’t just Democrats making these false promises about a generation of children and billions in taxpayer spending. Jeb Bush frequently described Common Core as “higher standards for reading and math” that were key to improving student achievement nationwide. Top Republicans like Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, Mike Pence, Ronald Reagan Education Secretary Bill Bennett, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (now a U.S. senator), and numerous other GOP governors, publicly supported the initiative. The Wall Street Journal’s biggest editorial complaint early on appeared to be not that Obama’s education ideas like Common Core were unsupported by good evidence, but that he might not have enough leverage to get states deeply enough into them.

And then there were the dozens of special interest groups, largely flush with huge amounts of cash from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, paid to promote the idea. Michael Petrilli of the supposedly conservative Thomas Fordham Foundation is representative of this group. He went around to especially red legislatures telling, for example, Tennessee lawmakers when they had qualms about Common Core that ” the faithful implementation of these standards will help many more young people—including Tennesseans—be prepared for success in college and career.” False.

He told the Indiana legislature when it also had the same concerns, a “reason to stay the course with the Common Core—perhaps the most important reason—is to raise student achievement. I can’t guarantee that—it depends on aggressive implementation at the local level. But I can tell you that what you were doing before Common Core (and your raft of recent reforms) wasn’t working.” Well, we threw that spaghetti against the wall, and it failed to stick. Whoops!

All these people used their power to promote the idea that Common Core would be a good use of taxpayer funds and institutions and the next generation of American children. They were all wrong. And being wrong has cost them just about nothing. Petrilli’s next project, for example, is coediting a book out in 2020 and backed by more conservative foundation money titled “How to Educate an American: A Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools.” Bush still puts on big “education reform” conferences every year that bill plenty of the same education soothsayers whose prophecies have failed American kids. They’re underwritten by donors who apparently don’t look for a track record of success from the people they write huge checks to.

This failed project may not have put a dent in the careers of its biggest boosters, but Common Core has cost American children, and the nation, not only a huge amount of wasted time and money, but precious opportunities to actually achieve more, better, and faster. We’ve been scammed. Who will pay for the losses inflicted upon the nation by people who owed us a return on our investments and instead gambled it all away?

“Taxpayers and families deserve real results for their money,” Petrilli told the Wisconsin legislature reconsidering Common Core in 2013. Yes, yes we do.