THE EVERY STUDENT SUCCEEDS ACT (ESSA), passed into law in 2015, explicitly prohibits the federal government from creating incentives to set national standards. The law represents a major departure from recent federal initiatives, such as Race to the Top, which beginning in 2009 encouraged the adoption of uniform content standards and expectations for performance. At one point, 46 states had committed themselves to implementing Common Core standards designed to ensure consistent benchmarks for student learning across the country. But when public opinion turned against the Common Core brand, numerous states moved to revise the standards or withdraw from them.
Although early indications are that most state revisions of Common Core have been minimal, the retreat from the standards carries with it the possibility of a "race to the bottom," as one state after another lowers the bar that students must clear in order to qualify as academically proficient. The political advantages of a lower hurdle are obvious: when it is easier for students to meet a states performance standards, a higher percentage of them will be deemed "proficient" in math and reading. Schools will appear to be succeeding, and state and local school administrators may experience less pressure to improve outcomes. The ultimate scenario was lampooned by comedian Stephen Colbert: "Here's what I suggest: instead of passing the test, just have kids pass a test... Eventually, we'll reach a point when 'math proficiency' means, 'you move when poked with a stick,' and 'reading proficiency' means, 'your breath will fog a mirror.'" A reader of the Dallas Morning News saw nothing funny about the situation: "Tougher standards for students and teachers are a must if the U.S. is to avoid becoming a Third World economy."
So, has the starting gun been fired on a race to the bottom? Have the bars for reaching academic proficiency fallen as many states have loosened their commitment to Common Core? And, is there any evidence that the states that have raised their proficiency bars since 2009 have seen greater growth in student learning?
In a nutshell, the answers to these three questions are no, no, and, so far, none.
On average, state proficiency standards have remained as high as they were in 2015. And they are much higher today than they were in 2009 when the Common Core movement began. That year, the percentage of students found to be proficient in math and reading on state exams was 37 percentage points higher than on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an exam that is widely recognized as maintaining a high bar for academic proficiency. By 2015, that gap had narrowed to just 10 percent. Now, recently released data for 2017 reveal a difference of only 9 percent.
The news is not all good. Even though states have raised their standards, they have not found a way to translate these new benchmarks into higher levels of student test performance. We find no correlation at all between a lift in state standards and a rise in...