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Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare Students for STEM

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BOSTON – National mathematics standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia that supporters say are designed to make high school graduates “college- and career-ready” and improve the critical science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) pipeline do not prepare students to study STEM or even be admitted to a selective four-year college, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM

“With the exception of a few standards in trigonometry, the math standards end after Algebra II,” said James Milgram, professor of mathematics emeritus at Stanford University. “They include no precalculus or calculus.” Professor Milgram co-authored “Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM” with Sandra Stotsky, professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas.

U.S. government data show that only one out of every 50 prospective STEM majors who begin their undergraduate math coursework at the precalculus level or lower will earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM area. Moreover, students whose last high school math course was Algebra II or lower have less than a 40 percent chance of earning any kind of four-year college degree.

At a 2010 meeting of Massachusetts’ Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Professor Jason Zimba, a lead writer of the math standards, said the standards, known as Common Core, prepare students “for the colleges most kids go to, but not for the college most parents aspire to,” and added that the standards are “not for selective colleges.”

In 2010, William McCallum, another lead writer of Common Core’s math standards, said “The overall standards would not be too high, certainly not in comparison [to] other nations, including East Asia, where math education excels.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s competitive grant program, Race to the Top, requires states to place students admitted by their public colleges and universities into credit-bearing (non-remedial) mathematics (and English) courses if they have passed a Common Core-based “college readiness” test. The authors argue that selective public colleges and universities will likely have to lower the level of their introductory math courses to avoid unacceptably high failure rates.

“It’s astonishing that 46 boards and departments of education adopted Common Core’s ‘college- and career-ready’ standards without asking the faculty who teach math at their own higher education institutions to do an analysis of Common Core’s definition of college readiness,” Stotsky said.

Professors Milgram and Stotsky were members of Common Core’s validation committee, which was charged with reviewing each successive draft of the standards, but they both refused to sign off on the academic quality of the national standards.

Pioneer’s comprehensive research on Common Core national education standards includes: Common Core Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade; The Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and Conditional Waivers; National Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards, and A Republic of Republics: How Common Core Undermines State and Local Autonomy over K-12 Education. Recent national media coverage includes op-eds placed in The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.


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.