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Common Core's Five Big Half-Truths

School is back in session, and debate over the Common Core is boiling in key states. As governors and legislators debate the fate of the Common Core, they hear Core advocates repeatedly stress five impressive claims: that their handiwork is "internationally benchmarked," "evidence-based," "college- and career-ready," and "rigorous," and that the nations that perform best on international tests all have national standards.

In making these claims, advocates go on to dismiss skeptics as ignorant extremists who are happy to settle for mediocrity. The thing is, once examined, these claims are far less compelling than they appear at first glance. It's not that they're false so much as grossly overstated. Herewith, a handy cheat sheet for putting the Common Core talking points in context.

Internationally benchmarked: Advocates tout their handiwork as "internationally benchmarked." By this they mean that the committees that penned the Common Core paid particular attention to the standards of countries that fare well on international tests. It's swell that they did so, but benchmarking usually means comparing one's performance with another's -- not just borrowing some attractive ideas. What the Common Core authors did is more "cutting-and-pasting" than "benchmarking." Some experts even reject the notion that the standards are particularly good compared to those of other nations. Marina Ratner, professor emerita of math at the University of California, Berkeley, and winner of the 1993 international Ostrowski Prize, has written, "The most astounding statement I have read is the claim that Common Core standards are 'internationally benchmarked.' They are not. The Common Core fails any comparison with the standards of high-achieving countries....They are lower in the total scope of learned material, in the depth and rigor of the treatment of mathematical subjects, and in the delayed and often inconsistent and incoherent introductions of mathematical concepts and skills."  

Evidence-based: Advocates celebrate the Common Core as "evidence-based." The implication is that whereas we used to make things up as we went along, decisions about why students must learn this and not that in fourth grade are now backed by scientific research. In fact, what advocates mean is that the standards take into account surveys asking professors and hiring managers what they thought high school graduates should know, as well as examinations of which courses college-bound students usually take. The fact is that it's difficult for anyone to claim that evidence "proves" in which grade students should learn to calculate the area of a triangle or compare narrative styles. Vanderbilt professor Lynn Fuchs has put it well, noting that there is no "empirical basis" for the Common Core. "We don't know yet whether it makes sense to have this particular set of standards," she explains. "We don't know if it produces something better or even different from what it was before." Looking at evidence is grand, but what the Common Core's authors did falls well short of what "evidence-based" typically means.  

College- and career-ready: Advocates claim that the Common Core standards will ensure that students are "college- and career-ready." As former Obama domestic policy chief Melody Barnes wrote in Politico last year, "Too often, the path to a diploma is not rigorous enough to prepare our graduates for their next steps." Critics have observed, however, that the Common Core drops certain high school math topics (including calculus and pre-calculus, about half of algebra II, and parts of geometry) and moves other material to later grades. When asked whether this might leave students less prepared for advanced college math, proponents explain that the Common Core is a "floor, not a ceiling." Achieve, Inc., a driving force behind the standards, describes the "floor," explaining that the standards are meant to make sure students can "succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing postsecondary coursework" in "community college, university, technical/vocational program[s], apprenticeship[s], or significant on-the-job training." The result adds up to something less than the recipe for excellence that the marketing suggests. 

Rigor: Advocates declare that the Common Core is more rigorous than the state standards that previously existed. It's actually quite challenging to objectively compare the "rigor" of standards. After all, one could insist that fifth-graders should master calculus, note that the Common Core doesn't require this, and thus dismiss the standards as too easy -- even though such an appraisal might indicate impracticality rather than rigor. The Common Core's authors judged that the old standards had too much material but were insufficiently rigorous, which tells us that, in their view, we shouldn't equate rigor with quantity. Thus, the question is how to weigh subtle claims of relative rigor. More often than not, the case for the Common Core's superiority rests on the subjective judgment of four evaluators hired by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. These four hired evaluators opined in 2010 that the Core standards were better than about three-quarters of existing state standards. Not an unreasonable judgment, but hardly compelling proof of rigor.

Leading nations have national standards: Advocates have made a major point of noting that high-performing nations all have national standards. What they're much less likely to mention is that the world's lowest-performing nations also all have national standards. There is no obvious causal link between national standards and educational quality. 

When it comes to the Common Core, advocates have become quite adept at delivering their familiar talking points. They're quite proud of these. In fact, they think them so compelling that they're befuddled that popular support appears to be steadily eroding. A more skeptical observer surveys these talking points and sees a series of half-truths and exaggerations that have been trumpeted as fact. As states reassess the Common Core, advocates should be challenged to offer more than stirring rhetoric and grandiose claims. Given how avidly Common Core boosters celebrate "evidence," they really ought to be able to be able to muster more than, "Trust us, we're really smart."

Note: This article originally appeared in National Review Online.

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