So, it is doubly important that Carnegie commissioned McKinsey to use the reformers’ data “to test whether or not it might be possible to avoid large drops in graduation rates using human capital strategies alone.”
A year ago, Carnegie and McKinsey concluded, “The short answer is no: even coordinated, rapid, and highly effective efforts to improve high school teaching would leave millions of students achieving below the level needed for graduation and college success as defined by the Common Core.”
They determined that the six-year dropout rate would double from 15% to 30%. If, as Carnegie projects, the four-year graduation rate drops from 75% to 53%, that would be a blow that Common Core probably couldn’t survive.
If the dropout rate were to double that would indeed be horrific, which is precisely why it won’t happen.
It helps first to understand how the Carnegie Corporation arrived at its conclusions. Essentially, the authors assume that under the CCSS, roughly twice as many students (67% vs. 34% now) will be considered “below grade level” when they enter high school. If, like today, half of such students drop out, we can expect the dropout rate to double right along with the number of students “below grade level”.
This is crude, to say the least.
The core of the confusion is this: Even if we assume that the Common Core standards are considerably tougher than the state standards they are replacing, it does not follow that students will be held to substantially higher requirements in practice.
For one thing, whether students are identified as “below grade level” depends at least as much on the Common Core tests – and associated cut scores – as it does on the standards themselves. While there is pressure from some quarters to raise cut scores on these tests and thereby identify fewer students as “proficient”, there will also be downward pressure on cut scores if officials are reluctant to tell many more families and communities that their kids are not as “smart” as they thought they were. The authors of the Carnegie Corporation report assume that Common Core cut scores will end up matching NAEP’s, but this is basically a guess on their part.
More importantly, whether a student is identified as “below grade level” in this way doesn’t tell us much about the extent of her academic challenges in high school. The biggest academic challenges she is likely to face are course expectations and – depending on where she goes to school – exit exam requirements, and those are largely independent of Common Core tests.
Consider course requirements. While many CCSS supporters would like teachers to make their classes harder in proportion to the new standards and tests, many teachers, especially of struggling students, will know or quickly determine that drastically raising their course expectations will cause kids to flounder. As a result, they will “soften” the expectations for students, lowering the difficulty of the work and giving passing grades for work that is, in some sense, “below grade level”.
Indeed, this is how it works now: despite the fact that all classrooms in a state are theoretically held to the same content standards, not all classes are equally rigorous nor are students within a single class all held to the same absolute expectations. This is partly because teachers vary in their interpretations of the standards and their perceptions of students, but it is also because teachers differentiate on the basis of their students needs and abilities. Teachers do not, as a rule, want to see their students struggle and fail.
What this means is that in practice many students – and academically vulnerable students in particular – are not likely to see dramatic changes in the difficulty of their courses. They might engage in different sorts of activities or cover different content, but their teachers will adjust the difficulty of the course so that students are not completely overwhelmed.
A similar logic applies to exit exams. While such exams should be aligned to the Common Core, nothing requires that they be as challenging as the CCSS tests. Whether or not a “below grade level” student can “pass” an exit exam is a choice made by adults, most of whom are disinclined to subject children to unnecessary – or politically awkward – failure.
In other words, to argue that the Common Core will double the dropout rate, you have to assume – implausibly and uncharitably – that teachers and policy-makers are heartless, oblivious automata who will not respond to the effects of standards on students.
Now, it’s fair to say that Common Core supporters have sometimes tried to have it both ways here, claiming that the new standards will “raise the bar” for students and, simultaneously, that kids will not suffer as a result of greater challenges in school.
And it’s also likely that, Common Core notwithstanding, our dropout rates will increase in the coming years since they are currently at an all-time low and an improving economy will give marginal students better alternatives outside of school.
For the record, it is entirely possible that the CCSS will contribute modestly to future increases in the dropout rate. The Common Core will – by design – make some courses more difficult for many students, and for marginal students that may be enough to nudge them out of school altogether.
There is, however, no reason to think that the Common Core will “double” the dropout rate.