When Does the Common Core Become Difficult?

iStock_000019326943_MediumOne irony about the Common Core is that even in the debate about it—in fact even among critics—there seems to be no common ground. I have read that the standards are too hard; I have seen it suggested that the standards are deliberately calibrated at unattainably difficult, in order to crush public school systems and open the way for privatization.

Yet I have also read that the standards are too easy, and that they will ensure that our students are unprepared for college or anything but the most menial careers.

We will have to wait and see what the effects of Common Core adoption will be in the long run. But as for whether the standards are ‘difficult’ relative to the status quo, we are beginning to have some real data: the standards seem to be hard.

There are different ways to judge difficulty. When I say the standards appear to be hard relative to the status quo, what I mean is this: When educators write test questions that closely follow the standards and deploy tests made up of such questions, students are tending to get fewer questions correct than they had been getting on tests written based on the standards being replaced.

This is true in Math and English Language Arts/Reading, and it is mostly true across grade levels, with a few noteworthy exceptions. The pattern we are beginning to see emerge is that in Reading/ELA, there is a sharp increase in difficulty between 1st and 2nd grade standards, and the difficulty gradient slackens as we move through the middle school grades. In Math, the standards seem to get harder and harder from Kindergarten up through 8th grade.

It is of course very early to judge. The Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests are in pilot phase, with assessments and results not yet widely available. However, in the interim period between adopting Common Core standards and deploying one of the consortia-designed tests, some state and local school systems have implemented assessments aligned to the Common Core.

The state of New York, for example, deployed a Common Core-aligned test for 3rd-8th graders in the spring of 2013, and the shockingly low scores made national headlines and prompted a significant backlash  against the Common Core in general and against high-stakes testing (which predated Common Core adoption but now, aligned to the Common Core standards, appears harder than ever).

At Catapult Learning, we serve students in intervention programs across the country. For 2013-2014 we are using a Common Core-based criterion referenced diagnostic and interim test to assess student needs and progress. Our assessments are not high-stakes, and we are less interested in a general proficiency threshold than in the relative strengths and weaknesses of the students we support. We are also required to assess students at all grade levels, which means we have data about Kindergarten through 2nd graders, who are not assessed in most state accountability systems. This fall, over 22,000 Kindergarten through 8th graders took our Common-Core aligned diagnostic assessment.

As we expected, we have seen that in middle and high school, students are often struggling to master skills prescribed in the Common Core standards three or four grade levels below their enrolled level. Most of our incoming 8th graders, for example, do not have solid control of fundamentals like adding and subtracting fractions, a fifth-grade standard (5.NF), and are consequently far from working on grade-level standards like solving systems of equations (8.EE).

But our data has yielded some surprises among younger children. Because most state accountability systems do not require high-stakes testing below 3rd grade, there has not been a lot of attention to how well K-2nd graders do on Common Core-based tests. And those results look different, particularly in ELA/Reading, where our 1st and 2nd graders averaged 70% and 76% correct, respectively.

Because our fall diagnostic assessment mainly includes items from the prior grade level, this means that students who had completed Kindergarten and 1st-grade did pretty well when assessed on Kindergarten and 1st-grade standards at the beginning of the next school year, In fact, some of our teachers have complained that the diagnostic assessment we offer those students is too easy, a complaint which would sound odd to the public school principals in New York, who reported students vomiting, crying, and losing bowel control when faced with their tests.

But those were 3rd graders and above. In our assessments, scores were also much lower after 2nd grade—specifically, for entering 3rd graders being assessed on 2nd grade content. Our 3rd graders averaged only 46% of the ELA items correct, a precipitous drop from the 76% at 2nd grade, and consistent with our upper elementary scores, which averaged around 50%.

Again, these are early findings from a few tests, but they are consistent with the Common Core standards, which set high expectations on what happens by the end of 8th grade, but not unrealistic—or  even particularly high—expectations on what students can do by the end of first grade. By the end of first grade, students are expected to master the fundamental skills which underlie reading and arithmetic. This is Sesame-Street fare, and first-graders can do it.

The Common Core is all about integration and coherence, so it is awkward to pull out a single standard, but as an exemplar, the most striking one is RL.2.10: “By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories and poetry, in the grades 2-3 complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.” Contrast this with the equivalent first-grade standard (RL.1.10), “With prompting and support, read prose and poetry of appropriate complexity for grade 1.”

In other words, learn your ABCs in Kindergarten, learn to read in grade 1, and learn to be an independent reader by the end of grade 2. Students who cannot read independently by the end of second grade will have a hard time.

We have also seen, not just this year but in many years of using other instruments, that when kindergartners and first-graders have stories read to them aloud, they tend to do fine on ‘higher-order’ reading skills like identifying the main idea of a passage. This should give us pause when we come to second and third grade results, which show that many students do better at decoding and reading single words than on ‘higher-order’ skills.

Devoid of context, we might think that students can do the easy work of basic word reading but not the harder work of really understanding what a story is about. But if they could understand stories perfectly well in Kindergarten, it seems more likely that older children miss the point of stories mostly because, if they are not yet fluent readers, grinding through the sentences is so cognitively demanding that they can hardly attend to plot. This is like hitting the curb while properly executing a shift the first time you drive a manual-transmission car—you aren’t better at using the clutch than you are at steering; you were so focused on doing the clutch and the stick that you forgot to steer.

In some ways this is not news. Being able to read independently for understanding as a 3rd grader has long been known to be a crucial, turning-point skill. Tests built to the Common Core are finding that to be the first major hurdle.

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the increasing prevalence of computers, tablets, and internet access in the classroom, educational assessment is an a period of rapid change. Get the free on-demand webinar recording, presented by Dr. Sean McGrew, A New Generation of Assessments: 3 Things You Need to Know


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