Falling ACT Scores Are Latest Evidence of Common Core’s Failure


ACT, the publisher of one of the two most often used college entrance exams in the nation, recently released a major report, “The Condition of College and Career Readiness – National 2018,” that is another stunning indictment of the Common Core standards. Proponents of Common Core — the ones that forced acceptance of the standards in nearly all fifty states via federal economic coercion and bribes — claimed that college and career readiness would be the key metric improved by Common Core, and yet the ACT scores show readiness declining.

Perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that “readiness levels in math and English have steadily declined since 2014.” These are the very subjects of the Common Core standards. It was promised by Bill Gates, former Governor Jeb Bush, the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli and a host of other proponents that the new math and English standards would bring about celestial levels of college and career readiness because they were allegedly “rigorous” and “internationally benchmarked.” Yet the decline in math and English ACT scores began in 2014, the same year that the standards were fully implemented in most states. How could that be?  

Here are some other key ACT results (emphases added) confirming the trend:

  • “The national average ACT Composite score for the 2018 graduating class was 20.8, down from 21.0 last year but the same as in 2016. Average scores in English, mathematics, reading, and science all dropped between 0.1 and 0.3 point compared to last year.
  • “The percentage of students meeting at least three of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the four core subject areas was 38% for the 2018 US high school graduating class, down from 39% last year but the same as in 2016.
  • Thirty- five percent of 2018 graduates met none of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 31% in 2014 and from 33% last year.

The national results are bad enough, but it should also be noted that many individual states making up that average had declines as well. This includes Florida, which has suffered as a laboratory for the Common Core standards and test-based accountability reforms for the last 20 years. Bush and company bragged about Florida’s performance on the 2017 NAEP results, which is given to a very select sample of Florida students. However, of the states that showed an improvement on NAEP, many of them, including Florida, had the American Institutes for Research (AIR) as its state test vendor. AIR admitted in its Florida contract that it performs “test development, psychometric analysis [and] validity studies” for the NAEP, so it is quite possible that an advantage is created taking the NAEP because of states using AIR that has nothing to do with academic achievement.

While Florida’s NAEP improvement may or may not be real, there is little that is praiseworthy about the Sunshine State’s ACT results, taken by a much less pre-selected sample and serving as a broader indicator of test-based education achievement. Florida’s 2018 average ACT composite score is 19.9, nearly one full point below the national average of 20.8 and basically the same as last year’s score of 19.8 and as the 2014 score of 19.6. The percentages of Florida’s student population as a whole meeting the college readiness benchmarks in math and English have remained below the national average and basically unchanged since 2014.

The ACT report also contains “dismal” news for the groups it calls “underserved” — the “low-income, minority, and/or first-generation college students—who make up 43% of all ACT-tested graduates”:

Once again, fewer than a fourth of underserved graduates showed overall readiness for college coursework. [Emphasis added]

This last finding matches analysis by Dr. Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Common Core validation committee who refused to sign off on the English standards because they are so academically inferior. She noted after the NAEP scores were released in April:

Common Core-aligned standards and tests seem to have negatively affected the low-performing groups in Massachusetts. And that seems predictable, given the lower standards of Common Core.

Dr. Williamson Evers and Ze’ev Wurman of the Hoover Institution, both excellent sources of data showing the failure of Common Core, revealed the same trend, writing in a thoroughly documented paper called California’s Common Core Mistake:

Adopting the Common Core math curriculum standards has proven to be a setback for California. When California had its own mathematics standards before Common Core, its students performed significantly better in math than they have after the Common Core was put into effect. The hardest hit by this change were the most vulnerable students. The state of California Education under Common Core is not good. (Emphasis added).

Florida’s NAEP achievement gaps appear to be increasing since the implementation of the Common Core after they had been improving prior to Common Core. Here is one example based on the 2017 NAEP scores for 4th grade reading, the one area showing no improvement despite Florida’s controversial 3rd grade reading retention policy:

4th Grade Reading

NAEP YEAR White-Black Gap White-Hispanic Gap
2011 26 15
2013 24 11
2015 22 11
2017 27 14


While Florida’s African American students remain below the national average for ACT college readiness benchmarks in all the academic areas except reading, there is some good news on that front for Hispanic students. Florida’s Hispanic population did better than the national average in every single college readiness benchmark. The underlying reason for this could be related to family structure and parental involvement, which has been shown to be an important factor in minority academic achievement (see here and here).

Overall, however, there is no way that Common Core proponents can say that the standards are improving American academic achievement and college readiness measured by the test scores they value so highly. Perhaps they should have listened when David Coleman, the main author of the Common Core English standards and now president of the College Board, said he and his fellow authors were “unqualified” to write the standards, or when math Common Core standards writer Jason Zimba said that Common Core’s math standards were not adequate for selective four-year universities, especially for students wanting to study the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math).

ACT results like these are also why candidates, especially gubernatorial candidates that have successfully run on an anti-Common Core platform in the primaries like Ron DeSantis of Florida, Brian Kemp of Georgia, and Jeff Johnson of Minnesota, should keep that promise if elected. The futures and freedom of the families in their states and across the nation are depending on them.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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