The entire Common Core project is rapidly going south, and within two years may be no more than a dim memory of a nightmare in the minds of a growing army of angry parents and teachers from coast to coast. Before this dystopian scheme for upgrading the academic status of low-income children emerges in a more deadly form in a newly re-authorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), we could try to salvage one of the reasonable arguments for a “common core.” We could benefit from some research-based and internationally benchmarked common standards in elementary school reading, writing, and arithmetic across states. But not up to grade 12. As educators in other countries and most parents everywhere know, many young adolescents don’t want to go to college or can’t do college coursework and would prefer other options. But common standards up to grade 8, with flexibility in the curriculum and in school organization for that educational wasteland known as middle or junior high school, make sense.
The first task is to relabel the currently toxic package as high school-ready standards and give the forthcoming “college readiness” tests not in grade 11 but in grade 8, which is where they better fit with respect to content and cut score. There, with additions by academic experts in each state to ensure adequate content knowledge is also assessed, they can serve as nationally recognized indications of whether students are capable of authentic high school-level work in grade 9.
It won’t take long for college faculty to realize that Common Core’s tests are a better indication of whether students can do authentic high school-level work in grade 9 than of college-level work. Few post-secondary institutions will survive the pretense that grade 6/7 reading and mathematical skills denote “college readiness.” No doctors or engineers can be developed if they are at that academic level in grade 11 or 12, even when fraudulently deemed “college-ready.” How many American communities can survive without a few doctors and engineers of their own?
Once common ELA and math standards serve to guide a curriculum that makes most students ready for real high school work by the end of grade 8, we can work out alternative high school curricula—the upper secondary options that appeal to a broad range of students even today—and give young adolescents a choice of the kind of curriculum they are willing to commit themselves to—with change always possible. This is what most developed countries do, including Finland. Our aim would be to try to make sure that all students complete a basic education through grade 8, before compulsory schooling ends and before they choose their upper secondary curriculum.
Do not think I exaggerate our predicament. At present, we are spending billions of dollars trying to send students to college and maintain them there when on average our high school students read at about the grade 6 or 7 level and their mathematical knowledge is not much higher—in comparison to their peers in high-achieving countries. Two independent sources converge on that reading level: Renaissance Learning’s latest report on the average reading level of what our students in grades 9-12 read (whether assigned or chosen), and the average reading level of the books that colleges assign to incoming freshmen for summer reading (the titles can be found in the latest Beach Book report). As for mathematics, most high school graduates do not do much in mathematics beyond what students in high-achieving countries complete in algebra and geometry by the end of grade 8. Common Core asks for little more than that by the end of grade 11.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, as we have been regularly told. And here’s one we should take advantage of in order to salvage a battered public school system. If we don’t come to grips with Common Core’s notion of “college readiness,” we face dissolution of our entire education system. And there are other English-speaking post-secondary institutions outside of this country eager for students who can do high school-level reading and mathematics.
Sandra Stotsky was Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education in 1999-2003 and responsible for its K-12 standards in all major subjects. She was also a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee.