Does Common Core add up for California’s math students?*

As this public school year begins, districts across California are reporting student performance on new exams based on California’s adaptation of the controversial Common Core federal standards. Students and parents have good reason to be anxious about the newly released scores now and for years to come.

The first thing we are told by state officials is that the exams are based on “more rigorous Common Core academic standards.” In many states, the remark would be correct. But in California, especially in mathematics, the exact opposite is true.

California and Massachusetts had the best state standards in the country and we have both lost them along with the excellent CSTs (California Standards Tests) and each school’s API (Academic Progress Indicator). The API’s two 1-10 scores were based on the school’s CSTs — collective student performance — against all California schools and also against 100 comparable schools. Although simplistic, these were amazingly effective. They were incomparably better than the new color-coded “scores” that interested observers will not understand, probably by design.

There is a widely held misconception that multiple-choice tests are misinforming because it is “easy for students to guess answers.” This fact ignores the reality that all students are in the same boat, with strong students having a better opportunity to demonstrate what they know.

As described by the officials, the new test requires students to answer follow-up questions and perform a task that shows their research and problem-solving skills. Nice as this sounds, reality is that it makes the mathematics tests far more verbal. Any student with weak reading and writing skills is unfairly assessed. That is especially problematic for English learners.

Low socio-economic Latino kids will be further burdened in demonstrating their mathematics competence, and Chinese or Korean immigrants who are a couple of years ahead mathematically (as was my daughter-in-law when she immigrated as a fifth-grader from Korea) will be told their mathematics competence is deficient. Absolutely absurd. Mathematics carried her for a couple of years until her English became good enough for academic work in other subjects.

The Common Core math standards, and the misguided philosophy of mathematics education behind them, are the heart of the problem. The new assessments simply reflect them. They say mathematics is best learned through students’ exploration of lengthy “real world” problems rather than the artificial setting of a competent teacher teaching a concept followed by straightforward applications thereof.

Stephen Colbert reports on Common Core confusion

Reality is that traditional (albeit contrived) word problems lead to better retention and use of the mathematics involved. Comparison with the highly effective Singapore Primary Math Series is illustrative.

Another misconception of teachers and assessment “experts” is that Common Core expects students to use nonstandard arithmetic algorithms. These are often used in place of the familiar ones; e.g., borrow/carry in subtraction/addition and vertical multiplication with its place-value shift with successive digits. Stephen Colbert’s delightful derision, which you can find by googling Colbert and Common Core, provides an example of that parental frustration.

Hard as it is to believe, one of the top three guides for the national math standards, and the sole guide for California’s new exams from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, has no degree in mathematics; his degree is in English literature.

Moreover, both the corresponding curricula and these less meaningful assessments are exactly what the Math Wars of the 1990s were about.The former standards that came out in late 1997 were written by a subgroup of the Stanford mathematics faculty and were based on the goal of making eighth-grade algebra a realistic opportunity for all California students, not just those whose parents can afford a good private school.

The idea that the Common Core standards and associated assessments are more rigorous and provide greater opportunities for California students is based on ignorance or, worse, is completely disingenuous.

It makes the mathematics tests far more verbal. Any student with weak reading and writing skills is unfairly assessed. That is especially problematic for English learners.


Wayne Bishop is a professor of mathematics at Cal State Los Angeles.

*Originally published in the San Gabriel Valley [Los Angeles] Tribune, 2 September, 2016

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One Response to Does Common Core add up for California’s math students?*

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