WASHINGTON — Even if you believe that the Common Core standards are high quality, internationally benchmarked and would provide a solid foundation for the American education system, you should be worried about how they are being implemented.
If the Common Core standards — which are meant to define what knowledge and skills should be acquired by students during their K-12 education — are not integrated into the American education system with care, any positive attributes that they may have will be washed out by incoherence, misalignment and evaporation of political support.
That said, there is ample reason to believe that the standards are not being implemented with care.
Last week, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a multistate consortium working to develop standardized tests aligned to the Common Core, released the price tag for its new exams.
At $30 per student, it came in at almost three times what Georgia spends per year on tests, causing the Peach State to drop out of the consortium later that day, citing testing costs. Though it is true that the price point is less than what half of the states in the consortium spend on assessments, that is little solace for state education leaders who will need to acquire new funding for tests at a time of constricted state budgets.
This portends problems. One of the purposes of the Common Core is to unify the set of expectations for students all across the country.
There is no reason, the argument goes, that a fourth-grader in Mississippi should learn something different from a fourth-grader in Vermont. If, however, cost or politics drives every state to develop its own test of the standards, there is little reason to believe that students will be held to the same expectations.
Such could also be said about the flood of new “Common Core aligned” resources, teachers and principals are sifting through to reorient classroom instruction to the Common Core.
One of the promises of the Common Core was that it would create a nationwide market for textbooks, supplemental resources and professional development tools.
A quick Amazon search finds over 30,000 such items, most of which are described as aligned to the standards. If states, districts, and schools do not find a meaningful, workable way to vet these materials, they risk teaching students content or skills not aligned to the standards. This could cause an inaccurate assessment of student, teacher and school performance on accountability exams.
But perhaps the most damming development of the Common Core movement will be the political fallout when the standard for students shifts from mere “proficiency” to “college and career readiness.”
Take a state like Michigan. In 2012, 65.7 percent of eighth-graders were deemed “proficient” in reading by the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, the current state accountability exam.
But if we want to gauge student proficiency by using the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam — a test given across the country since the 1970s that is widely accepted to hold students to a high standard — as an indicator of what pass rates for the Common Core tests will look like, in 2011, only 32 percent of Michigan eighth-graders were deemed proficient in reading.
If the number of students that clear the bar is cut in half when these new exams are implemented, it is quite likely that parents will reject the exams as inaccurate measures of student achievement. If these numbers are compounded by students learning material from nonaligned resources, that makes the problem that much worse. This could set the standards-based accountability movement back for years.
These problems are not insurmountable, but for states all across the country there is a lot of work to do and very little time to do it. They need to roll up their sleeves, and work quickly.
Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.