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AIR and Fordham Institute Grade Standards; Common Core Wins!

September 21, 2014

This is the story of two organizations that took diverging roads to grading state standards: American Institutes for Research (AIR) and Fordham Institute.

Let’s start with AIR.

In a report released September 2014, AIR has “internationally benchmarked” state education standards. Now, this is not to be confused with the famed-yet-elusive “international benchmarking” of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). That “benchmarking” has gone the way of the mythical jackalope.

It appears that AIR is surprised that in the face of test-driven, perfection-demanding No Child Left Behind (NCLB), states gamed the system by setting “low expectations” and then meeting them.

AIR international benchmarking of state standards assumes that the standards can be graded via test score outcomes– and fail in comparison to CCSS, which has no test score outcomes to use yet– but just trust that CCSS is *better, higher, fairer, fewer, and clearer*. So, AIR decided to grade state standards based upon test scores.

(When in doubt, just grade something. That’ll solve it.)

And now, for a Fordham Institute moment:

When the Fordham Institute whipped out its 2010 report in which it purportedly graded state standards and CCSS– in July 2010– only one month following the official completion of CCSS– Fordham Institute completely ignored the dissonance between its standards ratings and corresponding state scores on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

If test scores are everything in the reformer mindset, how does Fordham justify ignoring them?


There is no logic to connect test-driven Fordham Institute and its grading of state standards with a test of central privatizer focus, state NAEP scores. Thus, highly-graded state standards might have low corresponding NAEP scores, or vice-versa. But it doesn’t really matter since Fordham declared CCSS The Winner in the absence of no outcome evidence and despite Fordham Institute’s own grading of CCSS with an “impressive” B-plus in English language arts (ELA) and an A-minus in math.

And forget any acknowledgment of the value of the un-measurable in education. Even acknowledging that the un-measurable matters defies the practice of reducing human learning to flat, impersonal economic terms.

Speaking of economics: Via its accepting millions from the Gates Foundation, including for “general operating support” and selling CCSS, which Fordham Institute is dedicated to doing nationwide.

But back to AIR.

AIR’s state standards grading is not like Fordham Institute’s. No siree. AIR is *scientific* about the grading-of-standards affair. AIR “statistically linked” tests– kind of like test-conversion “Red Rover,” with all assessments holding hands. So, via this “chain linking,”  AIR calibrated state tests to 2011 NAEP, and NAEP to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

And then, guess what?

AIR used letter grades to grade state standards based upon the linking of all of these test scores, in order to “gauge international competitiveness.”

How revolutionary.

And guess what the AIR-declared outcome is?


The overall finding in the study is that the difference in the stringency of the performance standards used across the states is huge and probably far greater than most policymakers realize. The difference between the state with the highest standards and the state with the lowest standards was about 2 standard deviations. This difference is so great that it is more than twice the size of the national black–white achievement gap. In many state testing programs, a difference this great represents three to four grade levels.

These large differences among states clearly indicate why we need more common assessments and the Common Core State Standards. It is not that each state should teach the same thing at the same time in every grade every year—instead, we need to reduce the extreme variability that we now have, whereby some low-achieving states have low expectations and higher-achieving states have higher expectations. These huge differences in expectations deny students in states with low performance standards the opportunity to learn from a challenging curriculum. [Emphasis added.]

That’s right: The US needs CCSS and its tests  in order to compete globally. Now, AIR has based its assessment of state standards on some really impressive, linked test scores, but never mind that CCSS has no test scores to study. CCSS is the solution.

And let’s not even discuss the reality that there is no investigation into the practical value of those linked test scores.

Practically speaking, all those test scores could be… worthless (gasp!).

Forgive me. I slipped into rationality. Back to AIR and Fordham Institute.

AIR connected state standards to test scores and graded state standards, and Fordham did not connect state standards to tests scores and graded standards (including grading CCSS), but both AIR and Fordham decided that CCSS WINS.

Regarding the states, there was very little agreement in the AIR grading and Fordham Institute grading (see this diagram). It’s a good thing that doesn’t really matter, now isn’t it?

Both state-standards-grading roads converged in one glorious CCSS adulation.

At least in the cited excerpt above, AIR briefly acknowledges the connection between standards and curriculum. What is does not acknowledge is the role of high-stakes testing in driving the entire education enterprise and in ultimately overshadowing all else– standards, curriculum, untested subjects, and any possible sound judgments on well-rounded-education quality.

Since I have already written extensively on Fordham Institute’s CCSS worship, let us take a moment to examine AIR.

AIR does not question the self-defeating role that test-driven reform plays in compelling states to set “safe” state goals for an unrealistic NCLB  (including the lowering of state standards and watering down of state tests) in order to not have principals and teachers fired and schools declared failures and taken over in order to be “turned around” or handed over to privately managed, under-regulated charters. AIR assumes that test-driven reform is good and will result in some undefined international superiority evidenced by America’s achieving The Best Test Scores In the Universe.

But there is another home-hitting, *economic* reason for this AIR “CCSS and assessments” push:

AIR NEEDS CCSS because AIR is counting on profiting from CCSS assessments. 

Although Florida supposedly dropped CCSS, it is apparently only a “rebrand,” and AIR has that testing contract:

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has recommended the American Institutes for Research produce Florida’s next statewide exam.

The new, as-yet-unnamed test is required because Florida is finishing the switch to new math, language arts and literacy standards largely based on the Common Core State Standards adopted by Florida and 44 other states. The current Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was not designed for the new standards. …

The contract with AIR will be for $220 million over six years, according to documents the agency posted online.


AIR is also one of the developers chosen for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC):

OLYMPIA, Wash. – The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (Smarter Balanced) announced today that the American Institutes for Research (AIR) will develop an open source solution for delivering the Consortium’s online, computer adaptive summative and interim assessments to students. Online test delivery is a critical component of next-generation assessments….

The test delivery system encompasses test registration, presenting the assessment items to students, and delivering the data from the test to reporting systems. Under this contract, AIR, in collaboration with Data Recognition Corporation (DRC), will modify its existing test delivery system to meet Smarter Balanced specifications for the Pilot Test of the assessment system in early 2013 and the Field Test in early 2014. AIR’s system is used by several states to deliver statewide online assessments. It is compatible with the range of technology in schools, including computers, laptops, and tablets—requiring only a secure Internet browser for administration. The system will be optimized for release in its open source version in fall 2014.

AIR’s SBAC assessment contract was for not more than $14 million and was expected to be completed September 2014.

But there’s more:

AIR wants in on the other federally-funded CCSS assessment consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), but Pearson, the mega company that happened to be the sole bidder for the PARCC assessment contract, doesn’t want to share. So, AIR is suing for a piece of the action– an estimated one billion dollars plus over the course of four to eight years.

So, for AIR to analyze state standards and assessments, compare those to national and international assessments, and find in favor of a set of standards that it cannot test because doing so would require AIR use assessments that do not yet exist but are nonetheless declared imperative for America to compete internationally– that is decidedly suspect given AIR’s past, current, and future aim to profit off of CCSS assessments.

And as the cherry on top of this CCSS-promoting sundae:

Gates has paid AIR  for “benchmarking”:

American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences

Date: August 2014
Purpose: to support the development of new performance measures and benchmarking approaches that are well adapted to postsecondary colleges that implement new instructional methods and business models
Amount: $403,310

AIR has collected over $65 million from the Gates Foundation in the form of 23 grants since 2003.

Gates loves CCSS.

Fordham graded state standards and found in favor of CCSS. AIR graded state standards and found in favor of CCSS.

Both organizations benefit financially from promoting CCSS.

In the end, the graders win.


Like my writing? Read my newly-released ed “reform” whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education





  1. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    I looked over the AIR report and did not see a credit for the Gates funding there, or on the website–did not look carefully enough.
    Now for the grades thingy. You have done a super quadruple A++++ on this analysis. Great analogies and great timing. A really engaging treatment of a serious SPIN document timed to get some publicity for the CCSS.

  2. Jill Reifschneider permalink

    Thank you for the recent information on the players in the for-profit business of assessing our public school students, schools and teachers. I will add AIR and Fordham Institute to the names of organizations who are in the game to profit. I found it amusing that AIR wants in so bad that they are suing Pearson, the all-mighty.

    • Jill, AIR is suing PARCC for framing the RFP in such a way that only Pearson could deliver.

      AIR asked Pearson to share, and Pearson said nothing doing, so AIR is suing PARCC.

      A soap opera.

  3. Rob English permalink

    As a California high school math teacher I find your post very enlightening and informative. As a staunch opponent of common core I appreciate the time and effort you have spent fighting against “Big Brother”. We are having a district sponsored speaker from AIR Steve Leinwold. Do you have any other information on him than he posts on web page? Any info would be helpful as I am trying to educate the math teachers about the pitfalls of the common core and to show them it is just a money grab by a group of people/businesses.

  4. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Don’t know if this helps, but there is a lot of marketing going on, type in
    steve leinwand common core
    and see what comes up.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider: How Did AIR and Fordham Grade State Standards? | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Unraveling The Gordian Knot Around The Delaware DOE, AIR, DRC, CCSSO & SBAC | Exceptional Delaware

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