Since 45 states adopted new “Common Core” standards for what K-12 students should know and be able to do in math and English, so many spurious or downright fanciful arguments against those standards keep popping up that putting a stop to all of them can feel like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Still, it’s worth taking aim at the most persistent and dubious claims. One such claim is that the new standards will “dumb down” education in this country.
It’s hard to imagine how an idea so totally estranged from reality could ever take hold.
Common Core standards aim to raise the bar for a large majority of American children. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has long campaigned for high standards, found that the Common Core was more rigorous than standards in 46 states and on par with standards in another five. When the respected non-profit research organization WestEd compared Common Core to Massachusetts standards, which had long been considered among the nation’s best, it concluded that Common Core “tend[s] to include a slightly higher percentage of standards that reflect higher levels of cognitive demand.”
States have been bracing themselves for what will happen when the new standards take effect. We’ve already had a preview in Kentucky, one of only two states that has tested students on Common Core so far. The rate of students deemed proficient fell by some 30 percentage points. Hardly evidence of “dumbing down.” (New York has also tested its students on Common Core content, but the results of those tests aren’t in yet.)
And what were things like before Common Core? The Fordham Institute noted that math standards in most states lacked rigor. What’s more, more than half of states set the bar for passing their state math tests near or below where the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called “the nation’s report card,” sets the bar for merely “Basic” performance. As a result, 47 states reported that most of their 8th graders were “proficient” in math in 2009. Only one state reached that level on NAEP.
On its own, Common Core cannot guarantee that states will hold students to a higher bar. That still depends on the quality of the common tests states are still developing. It also depends on states’ courage in setting a high bar for passing their tests. Otherwise, there will be little way of knowing how many students have truly mastered the standards.
But Common Core has been a critical first step to raising standards. To suggest that they are “dumbing down” the American education system is just plain wrong.