Politicians lie. This is an unfortunate reality that most people have come to expect. But as elections come around, we’re supposed to have the opportunity to examine the performance of politicians in office. We have data—unemployment rate, GDP growth, poverty rate, crime, student achievement—that can help us judge whether we should reelect our leaders.
Except that last data point, student achievement, is a statistic that is being gamed by politicians nationwide. Elected officials and bureaucrats are preserving their careers at the cost of our children’s education. When we hear politicians proclaim the gains made in education and the strength of their state’s schools, they are likely citing data that is skewed to deliver a desired result.
A new study released last week by Achieve, a nationally-recognized education reform organization, finds that state proficiency test scores in math and reading far overestimate grade-level proficiency in these areas.
Fourth grade reading and eighth grade math scores are considered key indicators of achievement because students need to be able to read by fourth grade and have eighth grade math proficiency to move on to higher-level math. State proficiency tests showed an average 23.3 percent differential for eighth grade math and a whopping 30.3 percent differential for fourth grade reading in comparison to scores from the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP). NAEP scores are considered the gold standard for testing by liberals and conservatives, but rarely are parents and students informed of these scores.
The unfortunate outcome of states lowering proficiency standards is that students graduate from high school without being ready for college or their careers. Taxpayers and businesses are spending more money every year to provide remedial courses to high school graduates once they move on to college or the workforce. More than 50 percent of students who enroll in a two-year community college program are required to take remedial courses. Their likelihood of graduating is slim. Higher education is not intended as a way to catch up on the basic math and reading standards that states have eliminated to make parents feel proud and politicians look good.
This “honesty gap” results from a lack of political courage. States have been setting their own standards and defining them too low. “It is an incredible disservice to your citizens,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, in reaction to the study. Delaware Governor Jack Markell, a Democrat, explained last week that his state is actively working to better measure student achievement, and he is preparing parents for the fact that scores are going to drop as the state becomes more honest about whether students are proficient in reading and math.
Testing alone cannot improve education. But it helps to diagnose problems. Conservatives and liberals can agree on this point. The ideal scenario is that the states can come together and agree on a common set of standards for what students should be able to achieve by grade level in English and math. For example, by the end of fourth grade, students should understand the difference between first- and third-person narration, and by eighth grade, students should be able to interpret a scatterplot. If this idea sounds familiar—to have common college and career-ready standards and aligned testing—that’s because it already exists in the form of Common Core.
There is a lot of misinformation about Common Core. You may have heard it was created by the Obama administration. It was actually created by a coalition of Republican and Democratic governors. Or some say it is liberally biased. That’s simply not true—these are strictly basic math and English standards. And some claim that it usurps the power of the states by setting a national curriculum. In reality, the states and local school boards can still teach how they see fit. Standards are not a curriculum, but instead help to align the states so that a high school graduate in Georgia will not find herself at a competitive disadvantage to a graduate from a different state with higher standards.
Americans have an opportunity to raise the standard of education while also holding our leaders more accountable. We’re falling behind the rest of the world in educating our children because we’re allowing standards to match political expediency rather than college and career readiness. Common Core is the best way to achieve that goal.