Common Core’s Promise of “College-Readiness” Proves Empty

Photo credit: Terrapin Flyer via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo credit: Terrapin Flyer via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A small kerfuffle has broken out among education reformers about what level of proficiency is sufficient to be deemed “college-ready.” The original promoters of Common Core pointed to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test and its performance levels — “basic,” “proficient” or “advanced” — and created a sense of crisis by showing the small percentage of American students who reached the “proficient” level. Declaring this to be a national scandal, they sold Common Core as the solution.

But a few days back, Tom Loveless, of Brookings, published an interesting piece in which he suggested the shaky underpinnings of the “proficiency” argument.  After explaining the experimental nature of NAEP’s performance levels and the cut-scores — the achievement necessary to reach any of them — Loveless went on to argue that meeting a “proficient” level is much … much! … above what can be reasonably called a “grade-level performance.” More specifically, Loveless used the evidence that even the highest-achieving country in the world — Singapore — would have more than a quarter of its students fail to reach such level, and even very high-achieving countries such as Japan, Belgium or Finland would have half of their students fail to reach such level. In fact, even among American students who have taken calculus, some 30 percent would fail to reach NAEP proficiency, and a whopping 69 percent among those who have taken pre-calculus would fail to reach it. Hence, Loveless concludes, treating NAEP’s “proficient” as an expected grade-level performance is, as he politely puts it, “uninformed,” “def[ies] reason” and “refute[s] common sense.”

Indeed, how else could one put it when more than two-thirds of students taking pre-calculus, the highest expected math course in high school (calculus is taken for college credit), fail on this measure? Certainly not “grade-level expectations.”

So far so good. Loveless does a nice job of reminding us how unrealistically above a grade-level NAEP “proficient” is, and that even the NAGB — National Assessment Governing Board in charge of  NAEP — treats the proficiency levels as experimental. Consequently, Loveless suggested that “using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.”

Yet barely a day had passed before Chester (“Checker”) Finn, the dean of the “conservative” education reform movement (and a strong Common Core promoter), rushed to chastise Loveless for his careless telling of the truth. Yes, Finn wrote, Loveless is correct on the facts, yet he is wrong to suggest that using NAEP proficiency is a bad idea.

Instead, Finn argued, the “grade level” is the meaningless level of achievement. Grade-level norms (“averages”) are useless and misleading, Finn argued, and to buttress his claim he even dragged in the “Lake Wobegon” report from 30 years back (“where all children are above average”). Yet the Lake Wobegon report was not, as Finn believes, about the fact that grade-level norms are meaningless but rather that norms — like any other statistical artifact — can be manipulated. After all, Mark Twain didn’t speak about “lies, damned lies, and statistical norms,” and “NAEP proficient” is as much a statistical artifact as grade-level norm is. In other words, Finn throws some sand in the air hoping to confuse.

But why is Finn so eager to demolish grade-level expectations and trade them for the aspirational — as he himself admits — NAEP proficiency? Common Core, of course!

When Common Core was sprung on the whole nation in 2010, it promised that every kid graduating high school will be “career- and college-ready.” Career-readiness was quickly left by the wayside — nobody, including the NAGB, could figure out what it means — but college-readiness remained the “chicken in every pot” promise of Common Core. Yet there is a problem: we already have some 65 percent of high-school graduates going to college, and half of them never earn any degree. In other words, we truly have only about 1/3 of the cohort college-ready. This may seem low, but it is not a bad place to be — no other country around the world has a much higher rate of college degrees.

But Common Core promised that every kid, not just one third, will be college-ready, and therein lies the rub. If Common Core and its assessments were to truly set the high-school graduation bar at college-readiness level, only 30 to 40 percent of the cohort would ever graduate high school, and that is politically untenable. Instead, Common Core had no choice but to lower its expectations so as not to fail the majority of kids, and it tied its proficiency somewhat below NAEP proficient. Yet it kept the lie by calling them “college-ready” and pressured colleges — state colleges in particular, as their livelihood depends on the states — to accept that fake “college-readiness” as the real one. A recent ACT report sheds light on this bait-and-switch game, as do Kentucky four-year colleges’ math professors in their argument that the assumption that all high-school students are college-ready is “clearly false.”

Acknowledging that Common Core’s promise is an empty one, and that the majority of American students — and of students all around the world — will likely never reach NAEP proficiency or Common Core’s fake promise of college-readiness, is the true reason for Checker Finn’s salvo. After all, that is the last vestige of his effort to establish an education system centrally controlled from Washington. If the target is unreachable, why impose Common Core to try to reach it?

So much of the history of Common Core has been deceptive. This episode seems to follow the pattern.

Ze’ev Wurman is a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.