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Why are the Common Core standards worth fighting for?

Common-Core-logoBefore answering that question, let’s first do a little homework. Please turn to page 22 of this booklet, released only this morning, which contains sample assessment items from the New York state Common Core-aligned math assessment for third graders. Although you might be afraid of math even at this grade level, page 22 contains a relatively easy question about finding the areas for two equivalent rectangles. This question aligns with the Common Core standard 3.MD.C.7a, which in plain English means 3rd grade math, measurement and data, covering the concept of geometric measurement of area and related to multiplication and addition.

Now, please turn to page 42 of the same booklet, where you can see a real student’s answer to this problem. This anonymous student provides the correct answer, that rectangles D and C are equivalent. And yet, the student received zero points. Why? Because the student arrived at their answer “by using an obviously incorrect procedure.”

This single test item neatly illustrates the important shift that the Common Core standards and assessments require. For the past several years, many teachers have complained – with justification – that the state assessments they were required to administer were not of high quality. Many of these same teachers, and more than a few policymakers and pundits, decried “fill-in-the-bubble” tests that did little more than assess “rote memorization.”

That era is coming to an end. As this sample test question shows, no longer will students (or their teachers) be able to game the assessment through test-taking strategies. To explain why two rectangles of differing shapes may have the same area, a third grade student in New York will have to demonstrate their understanding of a procedure and mastery of a concept. This is not a revolutionary proposition by any means – good teachers have long asked their students to explain their answers – but it does represent an evolutionary step forward in standardized assessments. 

And because these new tests are more challenging (or “rigorous,” if you prefer), we should not be surprised to learn that students (and teachers) are struggling. The results from New York state’s first cohort of 3rd-through-8th grade students should be interpreted cautiously – scores will likely rise in the next few years as educators adjust to the Common Core – but they are sobering nonetheless. The low results for English Language Learners deserve particular attention given the increased emphasis on writing (in math and ELA) the Common Core demands. (It’s also interesting to see a clear “gender gap” in ELA, where girls consistently outscore boys across nearly all grade levels and ethnic groups.)

The magnitude of the challenge exposed by the Common Core is exactly why it’s worth undertaking the hard work to implement properly. We need meaningful tests to assess whether students are learning meaningful content. If the assessments reveal that students are not learning the content, and thus are not prepared for college or the workforce, the solution cannot and must not be to abandon the Common Core and return to less challenging standards, or to obfuscate this reality through cut-score trickery. The real fight for the Common Core starts now.

8 Responses to “Why are the Common Core standards worth fighting for?”

  1. MOMwithAbrain

    Question, have you ever taught math?
    Do you hold any advanced degree in math?
    Have you read the critiques of the math assessment by these Mathematicians?

    How do explain experts critiquing the assessments that they say focus on non-mathematical skills and knowledge?

  2. As a former teacher, may I ask what is wrong with rote memorization? That is how math has been taught for centuries. Children were taught to memorize math using flash cards, as I was taught and as I taught my students.
    It wasn’t until all the fads began to come in – that teachers were told that “drill kills” and children will not enjoy math if they are asked to memorize and be drilled. That was ridiculous. Children loved being drilled and they loved having the answers quickly in their heads and be able to beat the other child with the answer. Common Core math is just the opposite. It will take an entire period to do one problem, especially writing an essay explaining it. So many students who once loved math are now going to hate it.

  3. Ze'ev Wurman

    Whoever wrote that particular pseudo-student response on p. 42 is an idiot. Not only mathematical idiot, but a general-purpose idiot. And whoever wrote the item prompt is just incompetent.

    He or she want us to believe that a student went through an elaborate and correct counting of surrounding area, yet failed to recognize that 18 is not equal 20. Right. Sure. And that is supposed to show that “just a correct answer” will not be accepted anymore. Is 18=20 correct? No real student can be so stupid. But the response-exemplar author clearly can.

    Speaking of which … what should be the grade of a student who did precisely the same scribbling on the grid yet correctly indicated the areas of the rectangles, and correctly answered D and C? Should he or she be penalized for scribbling on a trivial picture? Why is, for example, answer on page 28 considered better than that on p. 40? And would an answer that draws three rectangles touching only at their *corners* get a full score, or not? This is a classic example where students have to guess the intent of the tester, rather than know the actual math.

    Benjamin, you want to use this as an example of “gaming” (or not) the test? Get real! That you get excited by such idiocy says something.

    Any test without external reference — as this test is — can be set at ANY level of difficulty one wants. It has little to do with the rigor of the standards, and everything to do with how hard one makes the test questions, and how harsh one decides to grade. Clearly, NY decided to create an education crisis to justify major educational changes. Believing it represents anything else is foolishness.

  4. Benjamin Riley

    @MOMwithABrain: There will always be experts who disagree with a new policy, and that’s healthy. In this case, I am persuaded by other experts who think the Common Core standards are far superior to those that states have adopted today. See, e.g, As an aside, the experts you cite were not criticizing the test NY state administered (though I suspect they would probably be just as critical if they examined that test).

    @Orlean Koehle: I actually agree with you that memorization of certain facts is critical to building knowledge, whether in math or any other subject. Dan Willingham has written persuasively on this subject from the perspective of a cognitive scientist. That said, many if not most teachers I’ve talked to do not describe children as loving “rote” memorization. So yes to drilling, perhaps, but make it engaging rather than killing.

    @Ze’ev Wurman: The example provided is a real student’s answer (I contacted Engage NY to make sure). Perhaps you don’t find that telling. I do.

  5. MOMwithAbrain

    Thank you Ben. However you did not state your background in mathematics?

    I personally have had the opportunity to tutor children in math including incoming college freshman who needed to take remedial math classes.

    It is disturbing to read comments that criticize rote memorization when it comes to mathematics. At the elementary level, this skill has helped many students transition to high school level mathematics easier than those students who’ve never committed math facts to memory.

    Moms understand by simply watching children that rote learning comes naturally to children. We see it when we watch our toddlers recite lines in Disney movies that they’ve watched OVER and OVER and OVER again. 🙂

    Flash cards may not be fun, but I’ve found them beneficial with my children and with the children I’ve tutored.

    I actually wonder why so many oppose rote memorization of the math facts when it’s clear to math tutors that committing the math facts to memory offers that student a HUGE advantage over the students who were never required to do that.

    We read over and over again about this fight to end rote memorization so it concerns many of us that those who promote this anti-knowledge agenda really do not understand how well students can do in math, when they memorize their math facts.

    This is why I never had to tutor home-schooled students. Their parents never gave up on the old schooled memorization of math facts.

    Home Schooled students tend to enter high school at an advantage over their public schooled peers who sat in classrooms with math programs that focused on this so called “deep conceptual learning” that downplayed memorization of math facts.

    Those are the kids who miss simple arithmetic in Algebra or who cannot divide fractions because they’ve learned multiple and confusing division algorithms but never committed one to memory.

    Deep conceptual understanding means nothing to me as a tutor if arithmetic has never been mastered.

    One more question. How much funding does this organization receive from the Gates Foundation ? The foundation that is heavily promoting Common Core?

  6. Ze'ev Wurman


    Perhaps I erred in my underestimation of student stupidity, yet whatever the source of that response, publishing it as an *exemplar* of bad student response is pretty stupid. The problem is that the student made two separate errors there: (a) in presumably confusing area with the “area of perimeter” (of width 1); and (b) that the student *declared* that 18=20, which generated the seemingly correct response “C and D.” An exemplary response is supposed to clearly instruct us how the test is graded, but this example fails: was the student docked points for what seems incorrect understanding of the concept of rectangle area, or because s/he did not recognize that 18 doesn’t equal 20? We don’t know. What should a student get, who seemingly-correctly marked the grid inside the rectangles yet incorrectly counted C=10 and D=12 and then wrote “C and D”? This is a much more interesting case than the confusing and low-probability case offered, yet it is absent here. What should a student get, who correctly computed the area and answered the question, yet had rather meaningless scribbles on the picture? Etc.

    This is the danger of *guessing* what students meant and grading according to such guessing. That is why *standardized* testing should not allow such subjective guessing by graders. Normal multiple choice avoids giving too much credit by guessing through using many items. And if we wanted to discourage guessing even further, we could simply *dock* points for incorrect guesses.

    What this example illustrates is precisely the dangers of subjective rather than objective grading. You may consider it good, I consider it asinine.

  7. Matt Evans

    @Orlean Koehle Some lessons may take a period to solve a single problem, and that is perfectly fine if the problem is rich and generates good conversation. If the classroom conversation is good, students will still love math because they are solving a problem that at first may have seemed not possible. If our job as educators is to help students be prepared for the real world, drill problems ONLY are useless if the student does not know how to apply those skills to solve rich problems that model situations they may encounter in real life.

    On that note, I am not denying the use for fluency, or “drill problems” Someone cannot run a marathon if walking is not second nature. The same goes for math. Someone cannot solve a rich “real-world” problem if they do not have the basic required skills readily accessible.

    The great benefit of the Common Core is that it recognizes this and gives value to fluency, conceptual understanding, and application. Through these three aspects of Rigor (one of the shifts) I strongly believe we will develop students who not only appreciate math, but do so because they understand it and know how to use it.

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