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