Extremism in Defense of Mediocrity is Quite a Vice

January 31, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Michelle Malkin recently wrote columns of an alarmed tone warning of the dangers of the Common Core. Here is a taste:

Under President Obama, these top-down mal-formers — empowered by Washington education bureaucrats and backed by misguided liberal philanthropists led by billionaire Bill Gates — are now presiding over a radical makeover of your children’s school curriculum. It’s being done in the name of federal “Common Core” standards that do anything but set the achievement bar high.

Substitute the word “conservative” for “liberal” and the paragraph reads like Diane Ravitch. Ms. Malkin proceeds to repeat various anti-Common Core assertions as facts-but are they facts? Having read that last bit about “standards that do anything but set the achievement bar high” I decided to put it to a straightforward empirical test.

Kentucky was the earliest adopter of Common Core in 2012, and folks from the Department of Education sent some before and after statistics regarding 4th grade reading and math proficiency. I decided to compare them to NAEP, first 2011 KY state test and 2011 NAEP for 4th Grade Reading and Math. NAEP has four achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced. Kentucky also has four achievement levels: Novice, Apprentice, Proficient and Distinguished. The first figure compares “Proficient or Better” on both NAEP and the state test in 2011:

KY CC 1As you can see, Kentucky’s definition of “Proficient” was far more lax than that of NAEP. In the Spring of 2012 however they became the first state to give a Common Core exam. How did the 2012 state results compare to the 2011 NAEP?

KY CC 2Kentucky’s figures are strongly suggestive that the new test is a good deal more rigorous than the old one- it tracks much closer to NAEP than the previous test. While it is possible that Kentucky had item exposure that explains some of the difference, but let’s just say there is an awful lot of difference to explain. We would expect somewhat lower scores with a new test, but if the new test were some dummied down terror…

There will also still be honest differences of opinion over standards independent of the rigor of the tests. Moreover, just because it is an obnoxious pet-peeve of mine, it is worth noting that starting out more rigorous doesn’t guarantee that they will stay that way…

A formal study could definitively establish the rigor of the new Kentucky test definitely vis-a-vis NAEP, but it is well worth considering where KY’s old test ranked in such a study by NCES. Short answer: Kentucky’s old standards were high-middle when compared to those of other states. Ergo we can infer that the proficiency standard on the KYCC test is far closer to those of NAEP than a large majority of current state exams.

There is room for honest debate regarding Common Core as a sustainable reform strategy, but we should have that debate rather than the present one.

UPDATE: Reader Richard Innes detected an error in the NAEP proficiency rates in the first version of this post. I made the mistake of looking at the cumulative rather than the discrete achievement levels and then treating the cumulative as discrete-thus double counting the NAEP advanced. If you have any idea of what I am talking about give yourself a NAEP Nerd Gold Star. Getting instant expert feedback is one of the best things about blogging, and I have updated the charts to correct the error.

In terms of substance, both sets of KY tests were further apart from NAEP proficiency standards, but the new ones are still far closer than the old ones.

 


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