The g-loaded Common Core

484600EF-DA3D-4D57-A041-DE1E43D7AA01This was one of the most predictable headlines in the history of education:

PARCC Exam Results for NJ Magnify Achievement Gaps Linked to Income, Race

Why did this happen?

Let’s back up a bit. Since No Child Left Behind, schools experienced enormous pressures to raise math and reading scores at all levels and for all demographic subgroups.

The result was two responses to incentives: first, lower-income schools (which experienced the most immediate and intense pressure to raise scores) devoted roughly 100% of their time to reading and math (and in some cases, extended their day dramatically to increase this allocation still further). Second, states gradually dumbed-down their tests so as to boost overall passing rates and also to make general cognitive ability less of a hurdle for students to overcome in passing the test.

Consequently, the 2000s saw a significant convergence in the scores of rich districts (which weren’t doing the all-test-prep/reading-and-math-all-the-time route anyways) and poorer districts and charter schools. Value-added measures (which show an estimate of the change in student achievement year to year for a student, classroom, or school, rather than just comparing passing rates) further put pressure on rich districts to change what they were doing, and stop goofing off.

Then came the Common Core.

If you look at the new tests, there is simply no way that well-intentioned, hard working teachers can get kids with lower innate cognitive ability to pass them. The curricula themselves are extremely recondite for kids of any ability (e.g., my third grader’s constrained optimization homework problem )


But it’s not just that the Common Core tests are harder. It’s that they’re harder in the specific way of making kids hold more steps in their head, do more abstract manipulations, and disregard more distractions to focus on the true problem– not in the way of making them remember more stuff.

I don’t doubt that those tendencies towards abstraction are and will be important to the workforce (at least until the Super AI comes along and turns us into paperclips), or to graduating college (as it is vitally important that Everyone Does.)

But that doesn’t mean they can be taught. I mean, it’s possible that Eva Moskowitz can hire someone to steal the tests and then bludgeon her Success Academy charges until they memorize the correct answers. But taught in a lasting way–no.

Perhaps the choice to adopt the Common Core approach to testing  and to what is to be taught- comes from believing that education can and should be complete preparation for the labor market, rather than for citizenship or participation in the culture. Or maybe it’s just educationists genuinely believing that differences in ability can be squeezed out of existence like the “I’m Crushing Your Head” gag in old Kids in the Hall episodes.

Or perhaps there is a deeper conspiracy I haven’t figured out yet.

An example from 4th Grade Reading:

Why is Pecos Bill’s conversation with the cowboys important to the story?

A) It predicts the action in paragraph 4

B) It predicts the action in paragraph 5

C) It predicts the choice in paragraph 10

D) It predicts the choice in paragraph 11

And 4th Grade Math:

A grocery store had cans of soup on 7 different shelves. The bottom 4 shelves each had 29 cans. The top 3 shelves each had 42 cans. What was the total number of cans on the shelves? After 56 cans of soup were sold, a clerk moved the remaining cans to a display case. The display case had shelves that could each hold 9 cans. How many shelves were needed to fit all the remaining cans?


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