GUEST POST: Common Core Math Standards Do Not Prepare U.S. Students for STEM Careers. How Come?

Sandra Stotsky /

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky

Most states adopted Common Core’s mathematics standards because they were told that these standards would make all high school students “college- and career-ready” and strengthen the critical pipeline for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Not so. With the exception of a few standards in trigonometry, the math standards end after Algebra II, observed James Milgram, professor of mathematics emeritus at Stanford University in “Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM,” a report that I co-authored for the Pioneer Institute.

Who was responsible for telling the truth to the over 46 state boards of education that adopted these standards in 2010? Who should be telling these states today that Common Core includes no standards for precalculus and that high school graduates won’t be prepared to pursue four-year degrees in STEM?

U.S. government data show that only one out of every 50 prospective STEM majors who begin their undergraduate math coursework at the precalculus level or lower will earn bachelor’s degrees in a STEM area. Moreover, students whose last high school mathematics course was Algebra II or lower have less than a 40 percent chance of earning any kind of four-year college degree.

It’s not as if the lead mathematics standards writers themselves weren’t telling the public how low Common Core’s high school math standards were. At a March 2010 meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Jason Zimba, a lead writer, told the board that the standards are “not only not for STEM, they are also not for selective colleges.” Yet I was the only member of the board who expressed concern.

In January 2010, William McCallum, another lead mathematics standards writer, told a group of mathematicians: “The overall standards would not be too high, certainly not in comparison [to] other nations, including East Asia, where math education excels.”

There are other consequences to over 46 states having a college readiness test with low expectations. The U.S. Department of Education’s competitive grant program, Race to the Top, requires states to place students who have been admitted by their public colleges and universities into credit-bearing (non-remedial) mathematics (and English) courses if they have passed a Common Core–based “college readiness” test. Selective public colleges and universities will likely have to lower the level of their introductory math courses to avoid unacceptably high failure rates.

Both Milgram and I were members of Common Core’s Validation Committee, which was charged with reviewing each successive draft of the standards. We both refused to sign off on the academic quality of the national standards, but we made public our explanation and criticism of the final version of Common Core’s standards.

It is still astonishing that over 46 boards of education adopted Common Core’s standards—usually at the recommendation of their commissioner of education and department of education staff—without asking the faculty who teach mathematics and English at their own higher education institutions (and in their own high schools) to do an analysis of Common Core’s definition of college readiness and make public their recommendations. After all, who could be better judges of college readiness?

Perhaps we need to select commissioners of education and members of state boards of education more carefully. In addition, maybe we should encourage the faculty in postsecondary institutions in a state to work directly with teachers in local school districts with oversight by only the local school board.

Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D, is professor of education reform emerita at the University of Arkansas.