Five long years ago, Washington and more than 40 other states adopted the Common Core standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students in our elementary and secondary schools. Now we’ve reached a critical milestone in this effort.
Washington parents just received for the first time their children’s scores on new tests aligned to the standards, and taxpayers got a look at results statewide. The news was sobering, and surely came as a shock for many. In five of the seven tested grade levels, for instance, fewer than half of the students are on track in math. The reading results weren’t much better. Let us explain why parents and taxpayers shouldn’t shoot the messenger.
First it’s important to remember why so many states started down this path in the first place. Under federal law, every state must test children every year in the third through eighth grades to ensure they are making progress. That’s a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their kids are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the money we spend on schools is being used wisely.
But it is left to states to define what it means to be “proficient” in math and reading. Unfortunately, most states, including Washington, set a very low bar. They “juked the stats.” As late as 2013, Washington was reporting that 70 percent of its fourth-graders were “proficient” in reading, whereas the federal government put the number at 40 percent—an enormous 30-point gap.
The result was a comforting illusion that most Washington children were on track to succeed in college, carve out satisfying careers and stand on their own two feet. To put it plainly, it was a lie. Imagine being told year after year that you’re doing just fine, only to find out when you apply for college or a job, that you’re simply not as prepared as you need to be.
Such experiences were not isolated cases. Every year, more than half of Washington’s community college students must take remedial courses when they arrive on campus. Many of those students will leave without a degree, or any kind of credential. That’s a lousy way to start one’s life.
The most important step to fixing this problem is to stop lying to ourselves — and to parents — and ensure our children are ready for the next grade, and when they turn 18, for college or work. Several national studies, including analyses of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that just 35 percent to 40 percent of high school graduates leave our education system at the “college prepared” level. Considering that 20 percent of our children don’t even make it to graduation day, that means that maybe a third of our kids nationally are getting to that college-ready mark. (Not coincidentally, about a third of young people today complete a four-year college degree.)
The Common Core should help to boost college readiness — and college completion — by significantly raising expectations, starting in kindergarten. But we shouldn’t be surprised that Washington found that less than half of its students are “on track” for college. In fact, that’s what we should expect. Washington parents, in other words, are finally learning the truth.
This is a big shift, and a painful one, from the Lake Wobegon days, when, like in Garrison Keillor’s fictional town, all the children were above average. But parents and taxpayers should resist the siren song of those who want to use this moment of truth to attack the Common Core or the associated tests. They may not be perfect, but they are finally giving parents, educators and taxpayers a much more honest assessment of how our children are doing — a standard that promises to end the lies and games with statistics.
Virtually all kids aspire to go to college and prepare for a satisfying career. Now, at last, we know if they’re on track to do so.
Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio are president and vice president, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, edexcellence.net, and are fathers of school-aged children.