Andrew Porter has a point (its just not clear what it is)

Adding fuel to a small but growing anti-Common Core fire, Andrew Porter penned an op-ed in Education Week this week that questioned the value and rigor of the Common Core ELA and math standards. He explains:

I hoped that new national curriculum standards would be better than the state standards they replaced, and that new student assessments would be better, too.

I wish I could say that our progress toward common-core standards has fulfilled my hopes. Instead, it seems to me that the common-core movement is turning into a lost opportunity.

His critique of the Common Core is grounded in a study that he and a team of U Penn researchers conducted that compared the both the topics covered and the ?cognitive demand? of the Common Core standards with the state standards they are going to replace. (According to Porter and his team, there are five categories of cognitive demand: memorize; perform procedures; demonstrate understanding; conjecture, generalize, prove; and solve non-routine problems. All objectives from the state and Common Core English Language Arts and math standards are grouped under one of these headings.)

Before even diving into a discussion of the substance of their analysis, the metric that Porter et al use is problematic. The researchers dive immediately into the weeds by dividing content into different topics and categorizing each objective under different headings. And, by doing so, Porter and his team lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Take, for example, a common math standard: ?demonstrate fluency with addition and subtraction facts.?

For starters, this standard could be categorized under more than one header. Some might mistake it as a memorization standard and tag it to the first category of cognitive demand. Others might code it under the second or third category??perform procedures? or ?demonstrate understanding.? But either way, by somewhat arbitrarily coding the standard, we've lost a more nuanced and important analysis of whether the standard is asking students to master essential content at the appropriate time and with the appropriate level of rigor. (In this case, for Fordham's review of state standards and the Common Core, our math experts felt that the standard didn't ask enough of students because it was focused on fluency, rather than memorization. And, at the elementary level, when students are mastering essential foundational math skills, they felt it was essential to memorize this content.)

Sadly, though, Porter and his team don't look at the standards holistically to see how thoroughly and rigorously critical topics are covered, opting instead to arbitrarily and superficially quantify the differences between different sets of standards.

[pullquote]Porter has criticized the standards for both putting too little and too great an emphasis on higher order thinking skills.[/pullquote]But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the research is that Porter himself doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what, precisely, he's hoping to glean from this questionable exercise in categorization. It seems, rather, that he was just looking to, one way or another, find fault with the Common Core.

For instance, in his op-ed, Porter criticizes the standards because they ?do not represent a meaningful improvement over existing state standards.? He explains:

To be sure, when we consider state standards in the aggregate, the common-core standards present a somewhat greater emphasis on higher-order thinking. But the keyword here is somewhat; the difference is small, and some state standards exceed the common core in this respect.

Oddly, though, Porter goes on almost immediately to explain that a comparison between the Common Core and international standards (including everyone's beloved Finland) found that the standards in some of the highest performing nations had less of a focus on higher order thinking skills than the Common Core. Specifically, he warns:

But curricula in top-performing countries we studied?like Finland, Japan, and New Zealand?put far less emphasis on higher-order thinking, and far more on basic skills, than does the common core. We need to ask ourselves: Could our enthusiasm for teaching higher-order skills possibly have gone too far? Clearly, both basic skills and higher-order thinking are important, but what is the right balance?

It was about this time that Porter might have asked himself if all this energy had actually shed any light on the Common Core whatsoever. After all, he has criticized the standards for both putting too little and too great an emphasis on higher order thinking skills. It's impossible to know how any set of standards would fare well in this analysis when it seems clear that Porter doesn't even know what an ideal set of standards should look like.

Finally, Porter tosses in an unfounded critique of the yet-to-be-developed tests that the PARCC and SMARTER Balanced consortia are working on. He warns that

?what I know so far about the work of the two multistate consortia developing the assessments isn't promising. It sounds as if the new assessments may ignore state-of-the-art research and technological advances, settling for tests that are much like the ones we already have.

What he knows can't be much since both consortia have grand plans to use innovative items and computer-based and/or computer-adaptive assessments, but neither has released as much as a single sample test question. But damn the facts when you have a point to make!

Despite the circuitous and questionable route he takes, in the end Porter is right that the Common Core standards are imperfect. Fordham's analysis of the Common Core standards found that both the ELA and math standards had shortcomings. (See here for more.)

Those shortcomings notwithstanding, the Common Core standards are far and away superior to the ELA and math standards that were in place in a majority of standards just a year ago. (Our 2010 comparison of state standards to the Common Core found that the Common Core ELA standards were ?clearly superior? than all but about a dozen existing state standards. And, only two states?Indiana and California?had ELA standards that were ?clearly superior? than the Common Core. No state's math standards were ?clearly superior.?)

While there may be no way to assuage the concern of critics who fear that moving to common standards will somehow undermine innovation or local control, adoption of the Common Core standards was a clear step forward for the vast majority of states because it replaced poor standards with clearer and more rigorous expectations of student learning. No amount of verbal sophistry can change that simple fact.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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