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The Fordham Strong Arm of Letter Grades for State Standards

December 26, 2013

In my previous post, The Importance of Common Core for Nationally-pervasive Ed Reform, I cite the 2009 Broad Foundation report in which a number of major reformer “participants” told America of the reforms it might expect to be in place in 2012– one of which is the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Among the list of “participants” are Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute and a number of Gates Foundation representatives.

I am mindful of the Fordham-Gates connection as influential in promoting CCSS. In my series on CCSS-Gates spending, I note that Gates paid Fordham $2 million to “review” and “track state progress towards implementation of” CCSS.

I also note that Gates paid Fordham an additional $1.5 million for “general operating support”– which could mean Fordham salaries.

In August 2013, a Michigan House panel questioned whether Finn’s review of Michigan’s standards was influenced by Fordham’s receipt of Gates funding.

It’s a valid question.

Many may not know that the Fordham Institute has been reviewing standards since 1997. It seems that Fordham just decided that they were the ones to do so. And there is another layer, one now quite popular with reformers: Give the standards letter grades.

Mind you, Fordham is accountable to no one. No agency audits Fordham’s practices and gives Fordham letter grades.

In fact, it was Fordham that created the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), the privatizing agency now famous for its assigning letter grades to college and university teacher training programs.

No one oversees NCTQ, yet it passes judgment on teacher training programs using artifacts as evidence enough… and it sits in the seat of judgment and is taken as a credible source…

…just like its creator, Fordham.

The 2010 Fordham Letter Grades

In 2010, in an effort to promote the “clearly superior to standards in most states” CCSS, Fordham assigned letter grades to CCSS and to all state standards.

They gave CCSS an A-minus in math and a B-plus in English Language Arts (ELA). Fordham notes, “Neither is perfect. Both are very, very strong.”

Did I mention that CCSS adoption means no removing of any content from CCSS?

CCSS is “not perfect,” so let’s infuse imperfection with inflexibility and call it “very, very strong.”

And what of these lofty, Olympian decision makers?

Who, exactly, decided that CCSS should have an A-minus in math and a B-plus in ELA?

Well, ten names are listed as associated with the 2010 Fordham report: Four authors; four additional contributors, and two (Finn and Petrilli) offering the foreword.

Thus, ten individuals either used or otherwise promoted a highly-subjective rubric reproduced in Appendix A of the report to arrive at their overly-influential judgments.  Here are some examples from the rubric:

Seven points: Standards meet all of the following criteria: Standards are top-notch in terms of the content chosen. The coverage of the subject is suitable, good decisions have been made about what topics to include, and nothing of importance has been overlooked….

Four points: Standards fall short in one or more of the following ways: At least 35 and up to 50 percent of crucial content is missing.

Three points: Standards fall short in one or more of the following ways: There are serious problems, shortcomings, or errors in the standards, although the standards have some redeeming qualities and there is some evidence of rigor. 

Then, there’s the ELA and math-specific criteria, which still are amazingly broad (e.g., in high school [grades 9 – 12], one must judge that standards include “grade-appropriate works of outstanding American literature and that writing “reflects the defining characteristics of various grade-appropriate writing genres).

And in math, Fordham’s “content-specific criteria” include no grade-level designations– and also no mention of calculus.

Fordham is able to fit all of the criteria used to brand a state’s entire set of K-12 ELA and math standards on nine pages.

These are not objective criteria, folks. These are broad, loosely-defined criteria. In fact, it ought to embarrass Finn and Petrilli to have their names attached to this fog. However, these “criteria” do allow for the speedy branding of most states as deficient when compared to CCSS.

These subjective criteria place the power in the hands of the few doing the grading. After all, this it the FORDHAM INSTITUTE, an “independent, conservative” organization that is well-connected to the media.

I think it is time for Chester Finn and his right-hand man, Mike Petrilli to answer for what they have done here.

Finn and Petrilli champion CCSS. The CCSS publicized spiel is that CCSS has been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia (DC).

Now, that in itself is a curiosity given that Fordham’s own review notes that in its opinion, CCSS was not superior in both math and ELA in 45 states and DC:

Based on our observations, the Common Core standards are clearly superior to those currently in use in thirty-nine states in math and thirty-seven states in English. For thirty-three states, the Common Core is superior in both math and reading.

However, three jurisdictions boast ELA standards that are clearly superior to the Common Core: California, the District of Columbia, and Indiana. Another eleven states have ELA standards that are in the same league as the Common Core (or “too close to call”).

Eleven states plus the District of Columbia have math standards in the “too close to call” category, meaning that, overall, they are at least as clear and rigorous as the Common Core standards.

Nowhere does one read of Finn and Petrilli cautioning states that are  either “to close to call” or superior to CCSS in their opinion to think carefully about embarking upon unnecessary disruption of their educational systems for no gain by adopting CCSS.

In fact, in Finn and Petrilli’s push for CCSS in Michigan, never once do they mention that they assigned Michigan’s math standards an A-minus– the same score they gave to CCSS math (see Appendix B), making CCSS math in Michigan nothing more than a lateral move.

Why say nothing?

Answer: Finn and Petrilli can’t standardize education across the nation by coming clean.

You see, the goal of CCSS is not “excellence.” It is standardization.

As I have written only days ago, CCSS is the vehicle necessary for standardizing the entire American education experience.

In 2010, Finn clearly admits as much:

For these standards to get traction in classrooms with kids and teachers, a whole bunch of other things need to happen. Curriculum needs to happen, textbooks need to be aligned with the curriculum, teacher preparation and professional development needs to be aligned, tests need to be aligned, the accountability system that is built on those tests needs to make sense and be workable—without all of those other things, and this is just skirting the surface—the standards are toothless tigers.

It’s going to be four or five years before the new assessments are actually in use. And that is a four- to five-year transition period for state and local education systems that I hope make good use of. [Emphasis added.]

Got that? Finn “wants to make good use of” 2010 through 2015 for the sake of standardizing American public education.

Did I mention that the past three generations of Finns attended Exeter, a posh, selective-admission institution where there will certainly be no CCSS?

Finn wants CCSS standardization for Other People’s Children.

Ahh, the view from Mount Olympus.

The “Bottom Line” and the 2009 NAEP

If one “tests” the Fordham state-standard grading system by comparing it to 2009 national test results, the 2010 Fordham report (dare I write it) earns an F.

For each of the states’ “report cards” on its standards, Fordham includes a brief ending statement it calls the “bottom line.” Now, the entire 373-page Fordham report is readily available for the media to publish. However, the media are not likely to critically read Fordham’s report and compare it to the states’ own review of its standards, if such a review exists. The media are also not likely to critically appraise the subjectivity of the rubric used to grade the states. Finally, the media are not likely to highlight the fact that some states outscored CCSS in Fordham’s own report.

In state testimony regarding CCSS, Petrilli is received as an “expert,” as are others from Fordham.

The media will seize the brief statement entitled, the “bottom line” and publish it as the heart of the story.

Consider the following “bottom line” info:

With their grade of F, Wyoming’s mathematics standards are among the worst in the country, while those developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative earn an impressive A-minus.

Sure sounds like one might expect some really low national test scores out of Wyoming.

Not so.

In 2009, the average National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math score for Wyoming eighth graders was 286. The national average was 282.

The average NAEP math score for Wyoming fourth graders was 242. The national average was 239.

Yet Finn and Petrilli’s Fordham has branded Wyoming as a failure in math.

Here are Wyoming’s 2008 math standards. See what teachers were using as a guide the year prior to Wyoming’s above-average NEAP scores in math.

Let’s consider Mississippi. Here’s what Finn and Petrilli’s Fordham have concluded as Mississippi’s “bottom line”:

With their grade of C, Mississippi’s mathematics standards are mediocre, while those developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative earn an impressive A-minus.

According to Fordham, Mississippi’s standards are better than Wyoming’s. Such does not play out in the 2009 NAEP scores; Mississippi math NAEP for fourth graders was 227 (national average 239). For eighth grade, Mississippi’s math NAEP was 265 (national average 282).

Perhaps Fordham would do better to spend its Gates money investigating the discrepancies between its ratings of state standards and prior NAEP results. I think they will find that economic conditions hold greater sway than standards.

Let’s do another– Minnesota:

With their grade of B, Minnesota’s mathematics standards are decent, while those developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative earn an impressive A-minus.

On the 2009 NAEP, Minnesota was more than “decent” in math. Minnesota eighth graders scored 294, second only to Massachusetts’ 299 (national average 282). Minnesota fourth graders scored 249, again second only to Massachusetts’ 252 (national average 239).

I am beyond tired of reading about those “impressive” math CCSS.

Sure sounds like Finn and Petrilli want to be certain that the press promotes CCSS at the expense of most states:

As should be clear by now, most state standards are woefully inadequate.

Of course, the ultimate reformer evidence of “adequacy” is the standardized test score.

I wonder how many journalists bothered to compare the 2010 Fordham letter grades to the 2009 NAEP scores. I’m thinking none.

Let’s hear it for the sound byte.

Here are some ELA comparisons:

Kansas: Fordham gave a “mediocre” C; fourth grade 2009 ELA NAEPwas above average (224 to the national average of 220).  For eighth grade, ELA NAEP was 267, above the national average of 262. Nevertheless, Finn and Petrilli’s Fordham are trying to sell CCSS, so they brand Kansas’ standards as “mediocre.”

Illinois: Fordham branded Illinois with a D, “among the worst in the country”; however, Illinois’ fourth graders scored only one point below average (219; national average 220), and eighth graders scored above average on the 2009 ELA NAEP (265; national average, 262).

In their “bottom line,” Fordham is careful not to assign a letter grade for states that equal or outrank their CCSS assessment of B-plus in ELA and A-minus in math. Here’s the “bottom line” for Louisiana ELA, which Fordham graded as a B-plus:

Louisiana’s standards treat both literary and nonliterary texts in more systematic detail than the Common Core, addressing specific genres, sub-genres, and characteristics of both type texts. Louisiana also more clearly prioritizes grade-appropriate genres in its writing standards and provides more detailed expectations for oral presentations.

On the other hand, Common Core includes samples of student writing to clarify grade- and genre-specific writing expectations….

So, according to Fordham’s own assessment, Louisiana is “breaking even” by disrupting all of its ELA classrooms in order to move laterally to CCSS ELA.

Notice that Fordham never writes as much. Gates wouldn’t like it, and Gates forked over $1.5 million for Fordham’s “operating expenses.” Plus, never forget that CCSS is a vehicle for standardization.

Now here’s the rub: Louisiana fared poorly on the 2009 ELA NAEP (fourth grade: 207; national average, 220, and eighth grade: 253; national average 262).

Again, Fordham’s Gates funding would be better spent investigating why a state with ELA standards it rates as comparable to CCSS scores so low on the NAEP.

Note to Finn and Petrilli: Don’t even think of putting it on the heads of the teachers. The 2010 Fordham ratings of standards are all over the map. It rates some standards as “worst in the country” or “mediocre,” yet the previous year’s NAEP are high. It rates some standards as wonderful (no letter grades in the “bottom line,” though– perhaps the press will not look elsewhere), and the 2009 NAEP results do not come close to matching Fordham’s glowing ratings (California and DC are stark examples: A-ratings from Fordham; obviously below-average 2009 NAEP scores in both ELA and math).

The Great Propaganda of the Fordham “Bottom Line”

The central element of the Fordham “bottom line” is its biased judgment of what its letter grades mean. Traditionally, the A-F letter grades hold the following meanings:

A = excellent or outstanding

B = very good or above average

C = average or satisfactory

D = below average or needs improvement

F = failing or unsatisfactory

However, in Fordham’s “bottom line,” traditional meaning is replaced with the following biased terminology (or not discussed at all):

A = Letter grade not included in “bottom line.”  (A-minus, B-plus, and sometimes B are also not included in “bottom line.”)

B = “decent”

C = “mediocre”

D = “among the worst in the country”

F = “among the worst in the country”

Fordham’s “bottom line” letter grade setup allows for no state to outdo CCSS– not even California, Indiana, and DC– which Fordham gave A’s in both ELA and math in the body of each state’s report but did not dare list those two A’s in the “bottom line” discussion. Instead, CCSS is compared to California, Indiana, and DC in a manner that makes CCSS appear comparable.

(Massachusetts’ ELA standards are the exception: Fordham includes no letter grade in its “bottom line” for Massachusetts and also does not state any “on the other hand” for Massachusetts’ ELA. However, this is a safe bet since CCSS “outscores” Massachusetts’ math standards.)

In other words, what California, Indiana, and DC need according to Fordham’s own assessment is to go backwards, trade those two A’s for Fordham’s A-minus and B-plus, in order to “take one for the pro-privatizing team” and enable complete national standardization of American public education.

What I Learned from Reading True Crime

I enjoy reading true crime; it appeals to my analytical bent. Here is a lesson that I have learned from that interest:  Sophisticated criminals manipulate their victims by utilizing a two-pronged strategy: Offer the victim an enticement to draw him toward a desired exploitation, but also introduce some element of fear in order to drive the victim away from some dreaded worst-case scenario (and again, toward the exploitation).

In offering billions to states willing to sign on for CCSS as part of the ultimately-underfunded contest that is Race to the Top (RTTT)– even before CCSS had been written– President Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offer the enticement.

In grading the states’ standards– and having the power to negatively publicize such results– Fordham provides the fear from which governors and state superintendents have run– right into signing over their states as part of RTTT.

After all, what state wants to be publicized as the one that defied the Gates-funded wisdom of the established conservative think tank stationed right in the heart of the nation’s capital that is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute?

CCSS Adoption “Voluntary”?

The more that I investigate CCSS, the more I am convinced that CCSS adoption is anything but voluntary. Voluntarily-adopted “state” standards do not involve the signing of a contract with the federal government in which the states are told that they agree to be “state-led.” Voluntarily-adopted standards are not the result of avoiding the potential bad press associated with some publicized report card of “woeful inadequacy” by a so-called “conservative” think tank purchased by “philanthropy.”

CCSS is not voluntary. It is coerced.

Finn, Petrilli, and their Fordham is one more brick in that wall of coercion.

American Education, privatizers like Finn and Petrilli– and with Gates funding to back them up– are pushing hard to standardize you.

You must push back.


ADDENDUM 12-26-13:

Not sure what made Finn and Petrilli think that this video was a good idea.

Here are two minutes of poor decision making broadcast to Youtube:

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