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Report: Common Math Standards 'Lower the Bar'

A new paper argues that the common standards in math do not demand a level of skill that is sufficient for selective colleges, or for students planning careers in math or science.

In a white paper released today, the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, one of the most vocal critics of the common core, seeks to back up its argument with comments made by one of the math standards' lead writers, Jason Zimba.

Co-authors R. James Milgram and Sandra Stotsky draw on the official minutes and a recording of a March 2010 meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Education, at which Zimba appeared. (Stotsky was then a member of that state board.) The minutes report that Zimba told the panel that the standards' "concept of college readiness is minimal and focuses on non-selective colleges." 

In his comments, according to a recording obtained by Milgram and Stotsky, he said that a "minimally college-ready student is a student who passed Algebra 2," and added that "it's a fair critique that it's a minimal definition of college readiness."

This past August, writing for the "Common Core Watch" blog run by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Zimba sought to correct the record, saying that Stotsky, Milgram and others had been "barnstorming the country" and misleading the public about the standards.

"It's factually incorrect to say, as these critics frequently claim, that the definition of college readiness in the Common Core is pegged to a community college level," Zimba wrote on the blog in August. "The definition of college and career readiness in the standards is readiness for entry-level, credit-bearing courses in mathematics at four-year colleges, as well as courses at two-year colleges that transfer for credit at four-year colleges."

Critics such as Milgram and Stotsky "want the term 'college ready' to mean something beyond Algebra 2," Zimba wrote. "They want to call students college ready only if they go beyond Algebra 2 to take trigonometry, precalculus, or calculus. At the risk of giving more oxygen to what strikes me as being fundamentally a dispute about language, what [those critics] think of as 'college ready' is what I might call 'STEM ready.' I think it makes sense to most people that college readiness and STEM readiness are two different things. The mathematical demands that students face in college will vary dramatically depending on whether they are pursuing a STEM major or not."

Milgram, a professor emeritus of math at Stanford University, and Stotsky, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas, are two members of the common-core validation panel who refused to approve the standards. Their aim in the paper is to show that the math standards do not reflect a level of college readiness appropriate for selective colleges or for those preparing for careers in math or science.

"State and national policy makers, educators, and the general public have been misinformed and are thoroughly confused because, after 30 or more years of substandard mathematics instruction in the public schools, most of them no longer understand enough mathematics themselves to figure out what academic level [the] Common Core's high school mathematics standards designate and how they may affect other levels of education and this country's economy," the co-authors argue in the executive summary. "They do not seem to understand that [the] Common Core's standards do not prepare high school students for STEM areas in college."

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