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
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
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
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
Also, separate from the content standards are a set of eight
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
—Updated November 1, 2014