The creators of the ACT test announced on Wednesday that scores for the class of 2018 are the worst reported in decades. Math scores, in fact, are in freefall among ACT-tested U.S. high school graduates, falling to their lowest mark in 14 years, according to The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2018, the ACT’s annual report.
The report includes ACT test results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“The percentage of ACT-tested graduates who met or surpassed the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math—suggesting they are ready to succeed in a first-year college algebra class—fell to its lowest level since 2004,” the report declared, with only 40 percent of 2018 graduates meeting the benchmark, “down from a high of 46% in 2012.”
The average score on the ACT math test dropped to its lowest level in 20 years — 20.5 on a scale of 1 to 36. American students scored 21.1 in 2012 and 20.7 last year.
“The negative trend in math readiness is a red flag for our country, given the growing importance of math and science skills in the increasingly tech-driven US and global job market,” said ACT CEO Marten Roorda. “It is vital that we turn this trend around for the next generation and make sure students are learning the math skills they need for success in college and career.”
But it’s not just math scores that have parents and educators concerned. Scores in other subjects are also falling.
“Readiness in English has also been trending down over the past several years, dropping from 64% in 2015 to 60% this year, the lowest level since the benchmarks were introduced,” according to the report. “Readiness levels in reading (46%) and science (36%) were both down one percentage point from last year but are showing no long-term trends either upward or downward. Science remains the subject area in which students are least likely to be prepared for college coursework.”
There’s little good news in the report and I encourage you to read the entire thing, but I want to focus on why this might be happening. Are students dumber than they were a decade ago or is there a problem with the teaching methods and curriculum?
Let’s begin by explaining what the ACT measures. According to the website, “The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement test that measures the skills taught in schools and deemed important for success in first-year college courses.” The data obtained in the survey “allow ACT to ensure that its assessments measure the skills most important for success after high school.”
The ACT determines those skills “based on the results of the ACT National Curriculum Survey, a nationwide survey of educators conducted every three to four years,” according to the folks at ACT. The survey results “identify what is important for high school graduates to know and be able to do when they enter college.”
We can’t talk about a “National Curriculum Survey” without discussing Common Core — the national standards most states adopted between 2010-2015 after much coercion in the form of financial incentives from the federal government. Although Common Core proponents insisted that they weren’t implementing a national curriculum, the effect was essentially the same. Rather than local school districts deciding what students should learn and know, states that signed onto Common Core tied the hands of local educators, forcing them to use the new standards. Although local schools have some flexibility in how certain skills will be taught, they are required to teach the voluminous list of standards.
Ultimately, the buck stops at the tests. Testing drives everything from publishing to local hiring decisions to the way math is taught in kindergarten. Advocates of the Common Core standards claim there will be no erosion of local control and deny there will be any federal influence on state and local decision-making. But it won’t be local teachers and school board members — or even states — deciding what will be on the high-stakes tests, and within a few years those tests will be the primary driver of what is taught in most of the classrooms across the country.
I warned at the time:
The Common Core standards will eventually lead to a one-size-fits-all, top-down education with little opportunity for individual choice or state innovation because all children will have to pass the same tests. As Common Core takes root in local districts and classrooms nationwide, local control and state innovation will be abandoned as schools move increasingly toward a nationally directed approach to education with decisions overseen by officials at the Department of Education.
States use a variety of tests — ranging from the ACT to PARCC to state-created tests — to fulfill the federal mandate to measure student achievement, however nearly all college-bound students take either the ACT or SAT as juniors and seniors, and those tests can give us a general overview of how the nation’s students are doing now that Common Core has been fully implemented.
Now comes news that less than a decade after the implementation of Common Core, rather than the improved test scores were promised, we’re seeing a progressive decline in student achievement.
Ohio state Representative Andy Thompson, a vocal critic of Common Core, told PJM that although the standards are not completely to blame for the decline in test scores, Common Core “is a significant factor.”
“I think testimony we took during our attempts to eradicate Common Core showed the dumbing down of curriculum, the social justice indoctrination, the emphasis on social-emotional learning, reduced quantity and quality of reading, emphasizing screen time rather than classroom instruction,” Thompson said. He explained that the “destruction of proper math” has also been a contributing factor. Common Core proponents, he said, “place a higher priority on indoctrination than education.”
Thompson lashed out on his Facebook page Wednesday after the report dropped. “Another Common Core success story!” he said sarcastically. “Thank you, Fordham Institute! Thank you, OEA, Ohio Department of Education, Ohio Business Roundtable, Philanthropy Ohio,” he wrote, calling out organizations that pushed Common Core in Ohio. “We could have averted this train wreck, but you listened to Bill Gates and his pocketbook instead of the many concerned students, parents, teachers and politicians in our state who warned you repeatedly that this would be the result.”
When Common Core was first being debated and adopted, there was widespread outrage about the new standards and the increased federal involvement in education. Many, including Thompson, warned of the dire consequences of the decision and predicted that student achievement would decline. In the years since the adoption of the standards, public interest in the topic has waned and parents seem to have been lulled into thinking that everything was fine — that perhaps Common Core wasn’t the end of the world. But this report from ACT should set off alarm bells with parents and educators alike.
To turn things around, Thompson said we need to focus on restoring local control, lifting federal mandates on teachers, getting the feds out of education, and “recognizing that teachers must be empowered to do what they know best—teach.” That seems like common sense advice, but we live in an age where common sense is in short supply. Federal bureaucrats seized control of education with the adoption of Common Core and they’re not about to give up that power anytime soon.
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