Equalizing Mediocrity

Sandra Stotsky is professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas.


0035_sandra_stotskyThe case for national standards rests in part on the need to remedy the inconsistent aims and inferior quality of many state standards and tests in order to equalize academic expectations for all students. The argument also addresses the urgent need to increase academic achievement for all students. In mathematics and science in particular, the United States needs much higher levels of achievement than its students currently demonstrate for it to remain competitive in a global economy.

The common core standards may lead to more uniformly mediocre student achievement than we have now.

The Common Core standards may accomplish the goal of equalizing education but not in a way the supporters initially hoped: they may lead to more uniformly mediocre student achievement than we now have. The national system is unlikely to accomplish the aim of raising academic achievement because it may reduce the number of high school students taking advanced mathematics and science courses in our high schools and make us much less competitive internationally than we now are.

The weaknesses in the proposed middle school standards — the key to advanced mathematics and science course-taking in the high school (never mind college) — suggest a deliberate effort to reverse a trend that was further encouraged by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel in 2008 — increasing the number of students in grades K-7 capable of taking and passing an authentic Algebra I course in eighth grade.

In Massachusetts alone, over 50 percent of its students now take Algebra I by the end of eighth grade; in California, of the 60 percent of students who now take Algebra I by eighth grade, almost 50 percent now pass. To continue this trend, which would put our students closer to students in high achieving East Asian countries in grade 8, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel sought to strengthen the mathematics curriculum in the middle grades. Without explicit justification or explanation, the Common Core has changed the thrust of the true reform in mathematics education over the last decade and will set us back.

Common Core’s “college readiness” standards do not point to a level of intellectual achievement that signifies readiness for authentic college-level work. At best, they point to little more than readiness for a high school diploma.

Common Core’s standards may well help many states to frame a stronger high school curriculum than their current standards do. Preparing all high school students for a meaningful high school diploma is something we have not yet achieved as a country and still need to do.

But preparing some high school sophomores or juniors for credit-bearing freshman coursework in an open admissions post-secondary institution, especially if the coursework has been adjusted downward in difficulty to accommodate them, is a strategy to evade the real problem — how to strengthen the secondary school academic curriculum

We face a possible decline in advanced mathematics course-taking in high school by students in the broad middle third (or higher) of our high school-age population if Common Core’s standards are adopted. Fewer students will enter high school with Algebra I under their belt. Students deemed “college-ready” will be encouraged to leave high school after grade 10 or 11 to enroll in a college degree program.

We need to ask if it is wise to encourage students in the academic middle who have been deemed “college ready” to enroll in a public college (at their own expense) before they have completed their last year or two of high school (at public expense) and to bypass high school graduation requirements. They will matriculate in a post-secondary institution with less mathematics knowledge than they would have had if they had first completed high school graduation requirements