Covering Standards and Testing in the Common Core Era

Overview

Common Core
The Push for Common Standards

In 2010, state after state took a remarkable—and unprecedented—step: They adopted common academic standards. Once the dust had settled the following year, 46 states and the District of Columbia had signed on to the Common Core State Standards.

Of course, adopting the K-12 standards for English/language arts and mathematics was only the beginning of this new chapter in the annals of American education. The real heavy lift has been the work since that time to implement them: training educators, developing and using new curricular materials that reflect the standards, helping parents and the public understand the changes, and devising a new generation of assessments, among other things.

On the testing front, two state consortia—fueled by some $360 million in federal aid—set out to devise aligned assessments. Early on, the vast majority of states appeared on track to use those exams.

But the story has gotten a lot more complicated amid a wave of intense pushback to the common standards and assessments. In fact, several states have taken steps to rescind their prior adoption of the standards and replace them, including Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. A few other states, meanwhile, such as Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee, have set in motion processes to review and revise the standards. What this action really means is still only starting to become clear. Even in Indiana, for instance, the substitute standards approved by the state bear a striking resemblance to the Common Core, by most accounts.

The biggest shift so far has been on the Common Core assessment front. The early vision of a uniform system of tests across the nation has given way to a fractured landscape. Only about half of the states now plan to use common assessments from the two state testing coalitions, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The rest have headed in all different directions. (Of course, even having half the states use the PARCC or Smarter Balanced exams is a big shift from the longstanding tradition of different tests in each state.)

The Focus of the Standards

So, what’s different about the Common Core? The architects of the standards say they are intended to define the knowledge and skills students need to graduate from high school college- and career-ready. On the Common Core State Standards website, this is defined more precisely as being “prepared to succeed in entry-level careers, introductory academic college courses, and workforce training programs.” For both English and math, the standards provide detailed, grade-by-grade expectations for knowledge and skills, although in math, there are no grade specifications for high school.

The “key shifts” in the English standards include regular practice with complex texts and their academic language; using evidence from texts to analyze and make claims; and building knowledge through “content-rich” nonfiction. The standards call for literacy to not simply be the province of English/language arts teachers, but also of instructors who teach science, social studies, and other subjects. The standards also place a premium on writing instruction, an area often neglected in classrooms, with a focus on ensuring that student writing is pegged to textual details and evidence.

In math, hallmarks of the Common Core include a greater focus on studying fewer topics in greater depth, increased “coherence” to better connect learning across math topics and grade levels, and three dimensions of rigor: conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and the application of math knowledge. These changes mean a shift in the grade levels at which some content is introduced, pushing aside other topics altogether to achieve greater depth.

Also, separate from the content standards are a set of eight standards for “mathematical practice” for students to show their understanding, from making sense of problems to reasoning abstractly and constructing viable arguments. In addition, the Common Core envisions that all students should at least progress to the level of math typically found in an Algebra 2 course.

The standards have drawn some criticism over content matters. For example, one complaint is that the English standards will lead schools to overemphasize nonfiction and crowd out time for literature. Meanwhile, some have suggested the math standards fall short of the rigor expected by some of the nation’s best prior state standards.

But what’s been especially striking is that so much of the criticism has not been about what the standards say, but rather, how they were developed or how they are being implemented. Some complain there was inadequate public input, and that the development process lacked sufficient transparency.

Perhaps the biggest concern is a belief that the federal government played an inappropriate role in pressuring states to adopt the standards. Although the U.S. Department of Education was not involved in developing the Common Core, it did create federal incentives for states to adopt “college and career ready” standards. And the easiest way to meet this was by adopting the Common Core, which most states did in rapid succession.

And certainly, the vast sum the Education Department supplied for the two state consortia to develop assessments has been a point of consternation in some quarters. Meanwhile, the standards have come under fire from some teachers’ unions for what they see as a rushed implementation and the effort to link teacher evaluations to the forthcoming Common Core exams.

Who Wrote the Standards?

The idea of developing common standards in the United States has roots that go back decades (including a failed effort in the 1990s), but the actual plan to create this set of standards was launched in 2009 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. With major financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the two Washington-based groups invited state leaders to take part in developing the standards.

The standards were crafted by writing teams and feedback panels that included college professors, state curriculum specialists, and K-12 teachers as well as representatives from testing organizations such as the College Board and ACT Inc., and the Washington-based research and advocacy group Achieve. The standards were subject to two sets of public comment before being published in final form.

Looking ahead, big questions loom for this grand experiment with common standards and assessments. Check out some questions to consider. You can also keep up with developments on the Latest News section of our site.

Finally, when questions arise about the standards and what they actually say, there’s no substitute for reading them yourself.

—Updated November 1, 2014

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Common Core Tests: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

The phrase “Common Core test” turns out to encompass far more than most people realize.

At the Education Writers Association’s spring seminar in Denver on covering assessments in the era of the new standards, it became clear to reporters that there is no such thing as “The Test.” Rather, there are many tests, developed by different organizations all purporting to be aligned with the new Common Core State Standards.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Educators: Common Core Standards ‘Are the Floor’

From left: Educators Luann Tallman, Mark Sass, Merlinda Moldanado and Kristy Straley talk with moderator Liana Heiten of Education Week at the University of Colorado Boulder on February 26, 2015. (EWA/Emily Richmond)

For teacher Merlinda Maldonado’s sixth graders at Hill Middle School in Denver, it’s not necessarily about getting the answer right. It’s not about memorizing procedures, either. If Maldonado’s classroom is clicking, frustration can be a good thing.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Common Core Opponents Turn Up Heat on Testing Front

Panelists and moderator Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week discuss the political situation for common standards and testing at an EWA seminar on Feb. 26.

Source: EWA/ Natalie Gross

Fiery anti-Common Core campaign rhetoric hasn’t translated into many victories for those seeking to repeal the standards. Legislators in 19 states introduced bills to repeal the Common Core this session. So far none has succeeded. Repeal bills in even the reddest states – states like Mississippi, Arizona, and both Dakotas – have failed to make it to governors’ desks this year.

Multimedia

Making Sense of the Evolving Assessment Landscape
Covering Standards and Testing (Denver Seminar)

Making Sense of the Evolving Assessment Landscape

This school year marks the first time that most states will test students on the Common Core. At the same time, many states have backed away from their plans to use shared assessments and are choosing their own tests. Where do the states stand? How different will their new exams be from prior tests? And what are key questions reporters should keep in mind as they cover the first round of test results?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

The (Southern) Politics of The Common Core

Former Gov. Bev Perdue, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Fla. State Sen. John Legg at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on Jan. 12, 2015. (EWA)

Against the backdrop of state and national political wrangling over the Common Core, former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue — an early champion of the standards — joined one of the state’s leading critics of the initiative, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, at an EWA seminar to discuss the past and future of the new academic benchmarks. (Watch a video of the session here.)

Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Common Core: What Educators Say About the Standards

Educators discuss the Common Core during an EWA seminar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on Jan. 12, 2015. (EWA)

When education analyst Maria Ferguson looks at data from across the country, she sees record-setting confidence levels among school district leaders that the Common Core State Standards are more rigorous than what states had in place before. At the same time, Ferguson told reporters at a recent Education Writers Association seminar, these new expectations are barreling down on educators faster than they are able to prepare.

Multimedia

Making Sense of the Evolving Assessment Landscape
Covering Standards and Testing (DC Seminar)

Making Sense of the Evolving Assessment Landscape

This school year marks the first time that most states will test students on the Common Core. At the same time, many states have backed away from their plans to use shared assessments and are choosing their own tests. Where do the states stand? How different will their new exams be from prior tests? And what are key questions reporters should keep in mind as they cover the first round of test results?

Multimedia

Surveys: What Educators and the Public Are Saying About Common Core
Covering Standards and Testing (DC Seminar)

Surveys: What Educators and the Public Are Saying About Common Core

Lots of recent surveys have sought to gauge support by educators and the public for the standards and testing. Learn what the sometimes conflicting results reveal. And find out where district-level implementation of the Common Core stands, based on extensive national polling of school district officials.

  • Maria Ferguson, Center on Education Policy
  • Diane Stark Rentner, Center on Education Policy
  • Erik Robelen, Education Writers Association (moderator)
Multimedia

Taking Political Stock of the Common Core
Covering Standards and Testing (DC Seminar)

Taking Political Stock of the Common Core

It’s no secret that the standards and forthcoming tests have drawn increasingly strong criticism over the past year. Why has the Common Core become so controversial? What will the midterm election results mean for implementation and state support? And what happens in states that call for a review or even rescind the standards? Will much really change?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Common Core Tests: Ready Or Not?

Students at Birch Elementary School in Reading, Mass. (Flickr/Heather Johnson, EOE)

From California to New York, educators have by and large maintained their support for the Common Core State Standards after putting the new grade-level expectations into action. But the new tests are another story, according to a panel of experts speaking at a recent EWA seminar at Stanford University.