Op Ed: North Carolina’s Failed Career and College Readiness Plan

The following is an Op Ed submitted by NC Citizen, Gerald Egolf.

Mr. Egolf is one of three citizens who created a free set of quality academic standards which was submitted to the Academic Standards Review Commission as an alternative to Common Core.

Mr. Egolf’s Op Ed takes aim at the  “career and college readiness” moniker, which state officials like NC Superintendent June Atkinson, as well as national educrats and various officials have been touting.

North Carolina’s Failed Career and College Readiness Plan

During the year just ended, the Academic Standards Review Commission (ASRC) failed to recommend a replacement, or alternate, set of standards to replace the failed Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Various groups of people testified both pro and con as to why they thought the CCSS should be replaced and with what, or why the CCSS should remain (the North Carolina General Assembly had previously voted to replace the CCSS).

As one listened to the proponents of CCSS, they consistently listed several strengths for the standards. Typically, the list included increased rigor, more critical thinking, more and better resources for teachers, better teaching staff collaboration, and much better college and career readiness. An examination is due for each of these but ultimately, we will examine the last one more closely.

Rigor is one of the buzz words that pop up whenever CCSS is defended. Difficult to define in the educational context, it has come to mean more difficult subjects and more depth to the teaching. At best, this is debatable. Like beauty, rigor is often in the eye of the beholder. There is little doubt that curricula with a higher level of rigor results in students that are better prepared for college but the level of rigor in the CCSS is suspect..

Critical thinking is another oft used term with the CCSS defenders. It sounds impressive but is another attempt to sound better than what it actually portends. Examples may be found where critical thinking turns out to be exercises where an answer is given and the students are to figure out how that answer was found. This is backwards. Standards that require lessons in logic, reasoning, building and defending arguments, and other important elements of critical thinking are missing, as well as human traits such as biases, prejudices, and emotions.

The subject of resources for teachers is one that causes some head scratching as there are a myriad of materials available via the internet, many of them free. One criticism is that these are “not professional.” Explain that to the teaching institutions and other learning professionals who create these materials. Many of them are award winning creations with outstanding ideas for new approaches.

Collaboration is something that should have been occurring prior to CCSS. Claiming that these standards are reason for more and better collaboration sounds as though proponents are stretching for additional excuses to defend their ox. What prevented teachers from collaborating prior to CCSS?

Finally, we come to the “career and college readiness” claim. While this sounds wonderful, it is another ruse being run against students and their parents. One loud advocate for the career readiness piece has been the Chamber of Commerce, claiming that potential employees will be better prepared for the work place, resulting in better pay and benefits. (We won’t get into the part where the Chamber of Commerce also supports the importation of cheap immigrant labor.) Let’s take a look at what it really means, how it was created, and some results of the career/college readiness game, particularly here in North Carolina (the NC Plan).

First, the claim that “ACT’s College Readiness Standards (CRS) and the Common Core State Standards are competitive world wide”. This is patently false as the standing of the U.S. in relation to other countries has not improved and has actually fallen according to some data. Stating that our CCSS is competitive to foreign standards is much akin to saying that our oranges taste just like their apples. One needs to spend some time (more than there is space here) to read and think about the NC Plan. It may be easily found on the internet at www.ncpublicschools.org. This comes with a warning. Beware of the many pages (total of 124) that are full of numbers, percentages, and listings of various groups. There is much useful information in there if you take the time to look.

Of course, the primary goal of the document and the system that big CCSS has put together is to prepare students for the great beyond following high school. Is that happening here? Is it happening anywhere? There are two sides to both of these questions.

Proponents will tell you that a) improvement, albeit slow, is occurring and that students’ test scores are improving and students are much more successful and better prepared for college or a career, or b) that if improvement is not yet occurring, it takes time for the standards to have their effect on test scores. Be patient, they say.

Let’s take a closer look at the ACT’s own test data for the past five years, capped off by the graduating class of 2015. A comparison of National scores and North Carolina’s scores is quite revealing. The comparison includes English, math, reading, science, and composite scores.

Beginning in 2011, graduating seniors across the nation averaged a 20.6 in English, 21.1 in math, 21.3 in reading, 20.9 in science, and 21.1 composite. By comparison, North Carolina students averaged a 21.2 in English, 22.4 in math, 22.2 in reading, 21.4 in science, and 21.9 composite. Obviously, North Carolina scored well among the states and things were looking up.

However, since 2011, things have gone downhill. 2015 graduating classes looked like this: (NC/National) 17.6/20.4 for English, 19.5/20.8 for math, 19.2/21.4 for reading, 19.0/20.9 for science, and 19.0/21.0 composite. Moreover, this is not just a dip in the scores. They have been steadily declining during the five-year period. Obviously, something is amiss or, at least, not what is being claimed. While National scores have remained fairly flat, North Carolina’s have tanked.

Since the focus is on readiness for careers and college, other data is included in the ACT report for who is ready for what. Some of the key pieces of data in the report are the “benchmarks” which depict the level at which a student should perform in order to succeed at a specific career or a given college. The benchmarks are listed for each of the subject fields tested, i.e. English, math, reading, science, and composite. Benchmarks are useful for selecting a particular college, getting scholarships, determining career fields, etc.

For the graduating classes of 2015, a full twenty-five percent of North Carolina students scored a benchmark in English of 0 to 12 (range of 1-36). Another seventeen percent scored 13 to 15, and twenty percent scored 16-19. This means that a total of sixty-two percent of our student in 2015 scored benchmarks that might, repeat might, get them into a community college. Only nine percent scored in the top two brackets, 28 to 32 and 33 to 36.

For the math benchmark, the figure was sixty percent in the lower three brackets, reading was fifty-five percent, and science was fifty-four percent. In order to succeed at any of the major North Carolina Universities and colleges, current ACT benchmarks are NC State 24 to 29, UNC 21 to 26, Wake Forest 29 to 31, Campbell 17 to 27, East Carolina University 20 to 24, and UNC-Charlotte 20 to 25. If a student with an ACT of 19 were to apply to UNC-Charlotte, it is estimated that they have a fifty-five percent chance of success while the same score would only have a twenty-three percent chance at Campbell University.

Along with the falling scores, there has been little to no progress in closing the learning and achievement gaps for minority students. Students of color are worse off with the CCSS standards, not better. Their parents ought to be outraged at the lack of appropriate content.

As for “career ready” there is a “World of Work” map for careers that supposedly matches ACT scores with various occupations. Given the narrow aperture that the rest of the ACT/CRS process uses, one can only imagine how well the map works in determining a career for students not planning to attend college. What ever happened to guidance counselors working with parents to help choose a career?

In conclusion, our public education system imposes a set of standards on its students and their parents, has designed a testing apparatus totally aligned with the standards and developed to supposedly reveal what career students should consider or what college to attend, and touts this as an improvement. However, data gathered and reported by its own testing shows the results to be dismal and failing. How can the Chamber of Commerce and other interested parties believe that they will be getting better employees for their members? How can colleges believe that their incoming classes of students will not require more remedial classes?

It should be even more obvious than before that the Common Core/ACT/CRS system in North Carolina is being managed for the benefit of big money, rather than for the students and what is best for the state of North Carolina. The Superintendent of Public Instruction has ensured that the cadre of CCSS providers benefitting from its largess continues to enjoy the fruits of their scheme while North Carolina’s public education system suffers a steady decline.

It is time to put a stop to this madness.