Miles to go, but pointed in the right direction

Several years ago, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst did a study that looked at whether there was a link between high quality standards and student achievement. Drawing upon rankings of standards done by Fordham and the AFT, he found no relationship between the strength of a state’s standards and their student achievement results.

Common Core supporters would do well to keep the champagne on ice.

Whitehurst’s study has emerged as the rallying cry of Common Core skeptics, with fellow Brookings scholar Tom Loveless using it to argue that the implementation of the Common Core doesn’t matter and won’t make a different in improving student reading or math achievement.

There is one small problem: The Whitehurst study doesn’t address Common Core standards because they didn’t exist when he did his research.

Enter Dr. William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University. Rather than resurrecting the Whitehurst study—or the Fordham evaluations of state standards—Schmidt did his own original analysis. And the findings from this study seem to suggest that Loveless—and anyone else trotting Whitehurst out to undermine the Common Core—may have gotten things exactly wrong.

The difference between the studies is critical to the debate over the CCSS. In short, while Whitehurst relied on Fordham's and the AFT's appraisals of state standards, Schmidt used his own original analysis to get much more directly to the question at hand: Will the particular changes Common Core is likely to usher in make a difference? He looked at every state’s existing or previous (i.e.: non Common Core) standards with an eye towards how similar they were to the new expectations. Then, he compared how students from each state fared on the 2009 NAEP math exam.

The results are important. Whereas Whitehurst found no correlation between quality standards and student NAEP performance, Schmidt found a statistically significant correlation: States with standards that were more similar to the Common Core did better on the NAEP than those in states whose standards were substantially different.

Of course, as Schmidt himself cautioned:

this does not prove anything…it’s a reasonable approximation of what might be possible.[emphasis added]

So, Common Core supporters would do well to keep the champagne on ice. There is much work to be done before we can spike the football and declare victory. But, these findings do suggest that Common Core may be getting something very right in the way the standards are written and that spending the time and money necessary to get implementation right may well be exactly what our students need. Or, Robert Frost famously cautioned: There are promises to keep. And miles to go before we sleep.

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