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Common Core Math Will Reduce Enrollment in High-Level High School Courses

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Study Finds Common Core Math Standards Will Reduce Enrollment in High-Level High School Math Courses, Dumb Down College STEM Curriculum

Lower standards, alignment of SAT to Common Core likely to hurt low-income students the most

BOSTON – Common Core math standards (CCMS) end after just a partial Algebra II course.  This weak Algebra II course will result in fewer high school students able to study higher-level math and science courses and an increase in credit-bearing college courses that are at the level of seventh and eighth grade material in high-achieving countries, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

Study Finds Common Core Math Standards Will Reduce Enrollment in High-Level High School Math Courses, Dumb Down College Stem Curriculum

The framers of Common Core claimed the standards would be anchored to higher education requirements, then back-mapped through upper and lower grades.  But Richard P. Phelps and R. James Milgram, authors of The Revenge of K-12: How Common Core and the New SAT Lower College Standards in the U.S.,” find that higher education was scarcely involved with creating the standards.

“The only higher education involvement was from institutions that agreed to place any students who pass Common Core-based tests in high school into credit-bearing college courses,” said Phelps.  “The guarantee came in return for states’ hoped-for receipt of federal ‘Race to the Top’ grant funding.” “Many students will fail those courses – until they’re watered down,” he added.

Perhaps the greatest harm to higher education will come from the College Board’s decision to align its SAT tests with Common Core.  The SAT has historically been an aptitude test – one designed to predict college success.  But the new test would become an achievement test – a retrospective assessment designed to measure mastery of high school material.  Many high-achieving countries administer a retrospective test for high school graduation and a predictive college entrance examination.

The new test will also be less useful to college admissions officers, since information gained from the retrospective test will duplicate data they already have, such as grade point average and class rank.  David Coleman, the lead author of Common Core’s English language arts standards, is now president of the College Board and announced the decision to align the SAT tests with Common Core when he became president.

The change in the nature of the SAT will be most harmful to low-income students.  An achievement test is far less useful as a vehicle for identifying students with high science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) potential who attended high schools with poor math and science instruction.  Retrospective tests are also more susceptible to coaching, which provides another advantage to students from families who can afford test preparation courses.

Low-income students will also be hurt the most by the shift to weaker math standards.  Since the Common Core math standards only end at a partial Algebra II course, nothing higher than Algebra II will be tested by federally funded assessments that are currently under development.  High schools in low-income areas will be under the greatest fiscal pressure to eliminate under-subscribed electives like trigonometry, pre-calculus, and calculus.

Research has shown that the highest-level math course taken in high school is the single best predictor of college success.  Only 39 percent of the members of the class of 1992 who entered college having taken no farther than Algebra II earned a college degree.  The authors estimate that the number will shrink to 31-33 percent for the class of 2012.

Two of the authors of the Common Core math standards, Jason Zimba and William McCallum, have publicly acknowledged the standards’ weakness.  At a public meeting in Massachusetts in 2010, Zimba said the CCMS is “not for STEM” and “not for selective colleges.”

Indeed, among students intending to major in STEM fields, just 2 percent of those whose first college math course is pre-calculus or lower ever graduate with a STEM degree. Proponents claim the Common Core standards are internationally benchmarked, but compulsory standards for the lower secondary grades in China are more advanced than any CCMS material.

The highest-achieving countries have standards for different pathways based on curricular preferences, goals and levels of achievement,  and each pathway has its own exit examination.“A one-size-fits-all academic achievement target must of necessity be low,” Milgram said.  “Otherwise politically unacceptable numbers of students will fail.”

Richard P. Phelps is editor or author of four books—Correcting Fallacies about Educational and Psychological Testing (APA, 2008/2009);Standardized Testing Primer (Peter Lang, 2007); Defending Standardized Testing (Psychology Press, 2005); and Kill the Messenger (Transaction, 2003, 2005)—and founder of the Nonpartisan Education Review (

R. James Milgram is professor of mathematics emeritus, Stanford University. He was a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee 2009–2010. Aside from writing and editing a large number of graduate level books on research level mathematics, he has also served on the NASA Advisory Board – the only mathematician to have ever served on this board, and has held a number of the most prestigious professorships in the world, including the Gauss Professorship in Germany.


Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.