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The College Readiness Illusion – A Reply to Mike Petrilli

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In a recent piece on his web site Mike Petrilli, the president of the Fordham Institute, makes a rather strange case arguing that Common Core is alive (and well?).

He quotes multiple blogs that argue the recent Massachusetts decision to abandon PARCC and replace it with MCAS 2.0 (Massachusetts’s own test) is a blow to Common Core and PARCC, but instead he argues that the replacement of PARCC by MCAS 2.0 “is no repudiation of PARCC.” His reasoning?

[T]here’s every reason to believe that MCAS 2.0 is going to look much the same as PARCC 1.0. This is akin to a state dropping the “Common Core” label but keeping nearly all of the standards. It’s essentially a rebranding exercise undertaken for political reasons.

Now, we don’t know whether Petrilli is right or wrong about MCAS 2.0, and we are quite willing to believe his sources are better than ours. So what Petrilli is actually saying is that PARCC has been saved in Massachusetts by its own elected officials deceiving their constituents and spending millions of extra dollars to create a fakely different MCAS 2.0.

If he is right, this is in line with similar rebranding efforts elsewhere across the nation intended to confuse the parents and keep them in the dark. Yet even if true, one wonders why he brags about deceiving parents, and one wonders how Massachusetts will react to being deceived, given that a statewide ballot to repeal Common Core has just been submitted to the Secretary of State there.

Petrilli then goes on to “prove” that Common Core has been successful and hence is healthy. First, he argues that, with Common Core, standards are “dramatically improved” when compared to the prior state standards. Opinions vary on this point, yet what nobody disagrees with is that nationwide student achievement on the NAEP took a sharp dive across the board this year for the first time ever, precisely five years after Common Core’s “dramatically improved” standards were adopted by most states.

Petrilli continues and praises the “quality of the reading, writing, and math tests in use throughout the country” under Common Core, and their alignment “with college and career readiness,” arguing a “huge improvement” in what he calls the “honesty gap” between what tests say and true college readiness.

It seems Mr. Petrilli is unaware of the “honesty” of Common Core test results from California. For many years California assessed college readiness of high school students, and the results were slowly but steadily improving until last year. Suddenly, with the new Common Core “college-readiness” Smarter Balanced test, 20 percent more students this year are suddenly “college ready” in English and more than twice (110 percent more, to be precise) are “college ready” for math. If these clearly-fake results seem to suffer from Petrilli’s honesty gap, the number of conditionally college ready in English almost tripled(!) from less than 50 thousand to almost 140 thousand students overnight. Perhaps we should rename it Common Core’s “college readiness illusion” instead.

He goes on to acknowledge we have little evidence that Common Core improved instruction in the classroom, yet he argues that “what we do know is that higher-quality curricular programs have been developed, and at least one—Eureka Math—is being widely used all across the country.” Actually, we do not know that higher quality programs are in effect, as the recent NAEP collapse indicates. Were truly higher-quality programs being used, we would expect the NAEP scores to rise rather than fall. Moreover, we would expect not to have hundreds of exemplars of math instructional idiocy propagated across the nation and on the Internet, all clearly labelled “Common Core Aligned.”

Finally, Petrilli turns to the comparability among states that Common Core supposedly allows. He somehow forgets to mention states like Washington, or Ohio, or Arkansas, which “re-defined” Proficiency on Common Core test results to suit their own needs rather than to aid comparability.

Based on all that, Petrilli declares that the Common Core standards “are still very much alive” and that cut-scores “are dramatically higher than ever.” We agree that Common Core is still – albeit barely – alive and that millions of students are going to be harmed before it is finally and completely dead. But we also observe that the federally sponsored consortia are already almost dead and that their college-ready cut-scores are — how to put it politely? — fake.

Ze’ev Wurman is former senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush.

Williamson Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


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