Common Core State Standards Initiative
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an educational initiative in the United States that details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. The initiative is sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and seeks to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.
In the 1990s, the “Standards & Accountability Movement” began in the U.S., as states began writing standards outlining what students were expected to know and be able to do at each grade level, and implementing assessment designed to measure whether students were meeting the standards. As part of this education-reform movement, the nation’s governors and corporate leaders founded Achieve, Inc. in 1996 as a bipartisan organization to raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability in all 50 states. The initial motivation for the development of the Common Core State Standards was part of the American Diploma Project (ADP).
A 2004 report, titled Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts, found that both employers and colleges are demanding more of high school graduates than in the past. According to Achieve, Inc., “current high-school exit expectations fall well short of employer and college demands.” The report explained that the major problem currently facing the American school system is that high school graduates were not provided with the skills and knowledge they needed to succeed in college and careers: “While students and their parents may still believe that the diploma reflects adequate preparation for the intellectual demands of adult life, in reality it falls far short of this common-sense goal.” The report said that the diploma itself lost its value because graduates could not compete successfully beyond high school, and that the solution to this problem is a common set of rigorous standards.
In 2009, the NGA convened a group of people to work on developing the standards. This team included David Coleman, William McCallum of the University of Arizona, Phil Daro, and Student Achievement Partners founders Jason Zimba and Susan Pimentel to write standards in the areas of mathematics and literacy. Announced on June 1, 2009, the initiative’s stated purpose is to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” Additionally, “the standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers”, which should place American students in a position in which they can compete in a global economy.
The standards are copyrighted by NGA Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which controls use of and licenses the standards in order to control derivatives. The NGA Center and CCSSO do this by offering a license to State Departments of Education which use the standards. However, two conditions apply: the use of the standards must be “in support” of the standards, and the waiver only applies if the state has adopted the standards “in whole”.
Forty-four of the fifty U.S. states and the District of Columbia are members of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, with the states of Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska and Indiana not adopting the initiative at a state level. Minnesota has adopted the English Language Arts standards but not the Mathematics standards.
Standards were released for mathematics and English language arts on June 2, 2010, with a majority of states adopting the standards in the subsequent months. (See below for current status.) States were given an incentive to adopt the Common Core Standards through the possibility of competitive federal Race to the Top grants. U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Race to the Top competitive grants on July 24, 2009, as a motivator for education reform. To be eligible, states had to adopt “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the work place.” Though states could adopt other college- and career-ready standards and still be eligible, they were awarded extra points in their Race to the Top applications if they adopted the Common Core standards by August 2, 2010. Forty-one states made the promise in their application. Virginia and Texas were two states that chose to write their own college and career-ready standards, and were subsequently eligible for Race to the Top. Development of the Common Core Standards was funded by the governors and state schools chiefs, with additional support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pearson Publishing Company, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and others.
Though the Common Core State Standards do not cover science and social studies content standards, the Next Generation Science Standards are in the process of being developed. They are not directly related to the Common Core, but their content can be cross-connected to the mathematical and English Language Arts standards within the Common Core.
English Language Arts standards
The stated goal of the English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects standards is to ensure that students are college and career ready in literacy no later than the end of high school. There are five key components to the standards for English and Language Arts: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Media and Technology. The essential components and breakdown of each of these key points within the standards are as follows:
- As students advance through each grade, there is an increased level of complexity to what students are expected to read and there is also a progressive development of reading comprehension so that students can gain more from what they read.
- There is no reading list to accompany the reading standards. Instead, students are expected to read a range of classic and contemporary literature as well as challenging informative texts from an array of subjects. This is so that students can acquire new knowledge, insights, and consider varying perspectives as they read. Teachers, school districts, and states are expected to decide on the appropriate curriculum, but sample texts are included to help teachers, students, and parents prepare for the year ahead. Molly Walsh of Burlington Free Press notes an appendix (of state standards for reading material) that lists “exemplar texts” from works by noted authors such as Ovid, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Turgenev, Poe, Robert Frost, Yeats, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the more contemporary including Amy Tan, Atul Gawande and Julia Alvarez.
- There is some critical content for all students – classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare – but the rest is left up to the states and the districts.
- The driving force of the writing standards is logical arguments based on claims, solid reasoning, and relevant evidence. The writing also includes opinion writing even within the K–5 standards.
- Short, focused research projects, similar to the kind of projects students will face in their careers as well as long-term, in-depth research is another piece of the writing standards. This is because written analysis and the presentation of significant findings is critical to career and college readiness.
- The standards also include annotated samples of student writing to help determine performance levels in writing arguments, explanatory texts, and narratives across the grades.
Speaking and listening
- Although reading and writing are the expected components of an English language arts curriculum, standards are written so that students gain, evaluate, and present complex information, ideas, and evidence specifically through listening and speaking.
- There is also an emphasis on academic discussion in one-on-one, small-group, and whole-class settings, which can take place as formal presentations as well as informal discussions during student collaboration.
- Vocabulary instruction in the standards takes place through a mix of conversations, direct instruction, and reading so that students can determine word meanings and can expand their use of words and phrases.
- The standards expect students to use formal English in their writing and speaking, but also recognize that colleges and 21st-century careers will require students to make wise, skilled decisions about how to express themselves through language in a variety of contexts.
- Vocabulary and conventions are their own strand because these skills extend across reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
Media and technology
- Since media and technology are intertwined with every student’s life and in school in the 21st century, skills related to media use, which includes the analysis and production of various forms of media, are also included in these standards.
The standards include instruction in keyboarding. but do not mandate the teaching of cursive handwriting. As of late 2013, seven states had elected to maintain teaching of cursive: California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Utah.
The standards lay out the mathematics content that should be learned at each grade level from kindergarten to Grade 8 (age 13–14), as well as the mathematics to be learned in high school. The standards do not dictate any particular pedagogy or what order topics should be taught within a particular grade level. Mathematical content is organized in a number of domains. At each grade level there are several standards for each domain, organized into clusters of related standards. (See examples below.)
Four domains are included in each of the six grades from kindergarten (age 5–6) to fifth grade (age 10–11):
- Operations and Algebraic Thinking;
- Number and Operations in Base 10;
- Measurement and Data;
Kindergarten also includes the domain Counting and Cardinality. Grades 3 to 5 also include the domain Number and Operations—Fractions.
Four domains are included in each of the grades 6 through 8:
- The Number System;
- Expressions and Equations;
- Statistics and Probability.
Grades 6 and 7 also include the domain Ratios and Proportional Relationships. Grade 8 includes the domain Functions.
In addition to detailed standards (of which there are 21 to 28 for each grade from kindergarten to eighth grade), the standards present an overview of “critical areas” for each grade. (See examples below.)
In high school (grades 9 to 12), the standards do not specify which content is to be taught at each grade level. Up to grade 8, the curriculum is integrated; students study four or five different mathematical domains every year. The standards do not dictate whether the curriculum should continue to be integrated in high school with study of several domains each year (as is done in other countries, as well as New York and Georgia), or whether the curriculum should be separated out into separate year-long algebra and geometry courses (as has been the tradition in most U.S. states). An appendix to the standards describes four possible pathways for covering high school content (two traditional and two integrated), but states are free to organize the content any way they want.
There are six conceptual categories of content to be covered at the high school level:
Some topics in each category are indicated only for students intending to take more advanced, optional courses such as calculus, advanced statistics, or discrete mathematics. Even if the traditional sequence is adopted, functions and modeling are to be integrated across the curriculum, not taught as separate courses. In fact, modeling is also a Mathematical Practice (see above), and is meant to be integrated across the entire curriculum beginning in kindergarten. The modeling category does not have its own standards; instead, high school standards in other categories which are intended to be considered part of the modeling category are indicated in the standards with a star symbol.
Each of the six high school categories includes a number of domains. For example, the “number and quantity” category contains four domains: the real number system; quantities; the complex number system; and vector and matrix quantities. The “vector and matrix quantities” domain is reserved for advanced students, as are some of the standards in “the complex number system”.
Examples of mathematical content
Second grade example: In the second grade there are 26 standards in four domains. The four critical areas of focus for second grade are (1) extending understanding of base-ten notation; (2) building fluency with addition and subtraction; (3) using standard units of measure; and (4) describing and analyzing shapes. Below are the second grade standards for the domain of “operations and algebraic thinking” (Domain 2.OA). This second grade domain contains four standards, organized into three clusters:
Represent and solve problems involving addition and subtraction.
- Use addition and subtraction within 100 to solve one- and two-step word problems involving situations of adding to, taking from, putting together, taking apart, and comparing, with unknowns in all positions, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem.
Add and subtract within 20.
- Fluently add and subtract within 20 using mental strategies. By end of Grade 2, know from memory all sums of two one-digit numbers.
Work with equal groups of objects to gain foundations for multiplication.
- Determine whether a group of objects (up to 20) has an odd or even number of members, e.g., by pairing objects or counting them by 2s; write an equation to express an even number as a sum of two equal addends.
- Use addition to find the total number of objects arranged in rectangular arrays with up to 5 rows and up to 5 columns; write an equation to express the total as a sum of equal addends.
Domain example: As an example of the development of a domain across several grades, here are the clusters for learning fractions (Domain NF, which stands for “Number and Operations—Fractions”) in Grades 3 through 6. Each cluster contains several standards (not listed here):
- Develop an understanding of fractions as numbers.
- Extend understanding of fraction equivalence and ordering.
- Build fractions from unit fractions by applying and extending previous understandings of operations on whole numbers.
- Understand decimal notation for fractions, and compare decimal fractions.
- Use equivalent fractions as a strategy to add and subtract fractions.
- Apply and extend previous understandings of multiplication and division to multiply and divide fractions.
In Grade 6, there is no longer a “number and operations—fractions” domain, but students learn to divide fractions by fractions in the number system domain.
High school example: As an example of a high school category, here are the domains and clusters for algebra. There are four algebra domains (in bold below), each of which is broken down into as many as four clusters (bullet points below). Each cluster contains one to five detailed standards (not listed here). Starred standards, such as the Creating Equations domain (A-CED), are also intended to be part of the modeling category.
Seeing Structure in Expressions (A-SSE)
- Interpret the structure of expressions
- Write expressions in equivalent forms to solve problems
Arithmetic with Polynomials and Rational Functions (A-APR)
- Perform arithmetic operations on polynomials
- Understand the relationship between zeros and factors of polynomials
- Use polynomial identities to solve problems
- Rewrite rational expressions
Creating Equations.★ (A-CED)
- Create equations that describe numbers or relationships
Reasoning with Equations and Inequalities (A-REI)
- Understand solving equations as a process of reasoning and explain the reasoning
- Solve equations and inequalities in one variable
- Solve systems of equations
- Represent and solve equations and inequalities graphically
As an example of detailed high school standards, the first cluster above is broken down into two standards as follows:
Interpret the structure of expressions
- Interpret expressions that represent a quantity in terms of its context.★
- Interpret parts of an expression, such as terms, factors, and coefficients.
- Interpret complicated expressions by viewing one or more of their parts as a single entity. For example, interpret P(1+r)n as the product of P and a factor not depending on P.
- Use the structure of an expression to identify ways to rewrite it. For example, see x4 – y4 as (x2)2 – (y2)2, thus recognizing it as a difference of squares that can be factored as (x2 – y2)(x2 + y2).
According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, formal assessment is expected to take place in the 2014–2015 school year, which coincides with the projected implementation year for most states. The assessment is being created by two consortiums with different approaches.
- The PARCC RttT Assessment Consortium comprises the states of Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. Their approach focuses on computer-based “through-course assessments” in each grade together with streamlined end-of-year tests. (PARCC refers to “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers” and RttT refers to the Race to the Top.)
- The second consortium, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, comprises 31 states focusing on creating “adaptive online exams”. Member states include Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, U.S. Virgin Islands, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
The final decision of which assessment to use will be determined by individual state education agencies. Both of these leading consortiums are proposing computer-based exams that include fewer selected and constructed response test items, unlike the Standardized Test that has been more common.
While some states are working together to create a common, universal assessment based on the Common Core state standards, other states are choosing to work independently or through these two consortiums to develop the assessment. Florida Governor Rick Scott directed his state education board to withdraw from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Georgia withdrew from the consortium test in July 2013 in order to develop its own. Michigan decided not to participate in Smarter Balanced testing. Oklahoma tentatively withdrew from the consortium test in July 2013 due to the technical challenges of online assessment. And Utah withdrew from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in August 2012.
The Common Core has drawn support and criticism from political representatives, policy analysts, and educational commentators. Teams of academics and educators from around the United States led the development of the standards, and additional validation teams approved the final standards. The teams drew on public feedback that was solicited throughout the process and that feedback was incorporated into the standards. The Common Core initiative only specifies what students should know at each grade level and describes the skills that they must acquire in order to achieve college or career readiness. Individual school districts are responsible for choosing curricula based on the standards.
In 2012, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution called into question whether the standards will have any effect, and said that they “have done little to equalize academic achievement within states”. In response to the standards, the libertarian Cato Institute claimed that “it is not the least bit paranoid to say the federal government wants a national curriculum.” Some conservatives have assailed the program as a federal “top-down” takeover of state and local education systems. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said her state should not “relinquish control of education to the federal government, neither should we cede it to the consensus of other states.”
Educational analysts from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute determined that the Common Core standards, “are clearly superior to those currently in use in 39 states in math and 37 states in English. For 33 states, the Common Core is superior in both math and reading.”
The mathematicians Edward Frenkel and Hung-Hsi Wu wrote in 2013 that the mathematical education in the United States is in “deep crisis” caused by the way math is currently taught in schools. Both agree that math textbooks, which are widely adopted across the states, already create “mediocre de facto national standards”. The texts, they say, “are often incomprehensible and irrelevant”. The Common Core standards address these issues and “level the playing field” for students. They point out that adoption of the Common Core Standards and how best to test students are two separate issues.
A spokesman from ExxonMobil said of Common Core: “It sets very important milestones and standards for educational achievement while at the same time providing those most invested in the outcome – local teachers and administrators – with the flexibility they need to best achieve those results”.
The Heritage Foundation argued in 2010 that the Common Core’s focus on national standards would do little to fix deeply ingrained problems and incentive structures within the education system. A study by Christopher Tienken, Assistant Professor of Education Administration at Seton Hall University, concluded that there was no relationship between the United States’ low score and its economic position.
A 2014 Mother Jones article, “We Can Code It”, which advocates for adding computer literacy and coding to the K-12 curriculum in the United States, notes that computer science is not incorporated into the Common Core requirements.
Marion Brady, a teacher, and Patrick Murray, an elected member of the school governing board in Bradford, Maine, wrote that Common Core drains initiative from teachers and enforces a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum that ignores cultural differences among classrooms and students. Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, wrote in her book Reign of Error that the Common Core standards have never been field-tested and that no one knows whether they will improve education. Nicholas Tampio, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Fordham University, said that the standards emphasize rote learning and uniformity over creativity, and fail to recognize differences in learning styles. Michigan State University‘s Distinguished Professor William Schmidt wrote:
In my view, the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM) unquestionably represent a major change in the way U.S. schools teach mathematics. Rather than a fragmented system in which content is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” the new common standards offer the kind of mathematics instruction we see in the top-achieving nations, where students learn to master a few topics each year before moving on to more advanced mathematics. It is my opinion that [a state] will best position its students for success by remaining committed to the Common Core State Standards and focusing their efforts on the implementation of the standards and aligned assessments.
The standards require certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare. Advancing one Catholic perspective, over one hundred college-level scholars signed a public letter criticizing the Common Core for diminishing the humanities in the educational curriculum: The “Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education and the heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to ‘over-educate’ people,” though the Common Core set only minimum—not maximum—standards. In May 2013, the National Catholic Educational Association noted that the standards are a “set of high-quality academic expectations that all students should master by the end of each grade level” and are “not a national curriculum”. Mark Naison, Fordham University Professor, and co-founder of the Badass Teachers Association, raised a similar objection: “The liberal critique of Common Core is that this is a huge profit-making enterprise that costs school districts a tremendous amount of money, and pushes out the things kids love about school, like art and music”.
As Common Core is implemented in New York, the new tests have been criticized. Some parents have said that the new assessments are too difficult and are causing too much stress, leading to an “opt-out movement” in which parents refuse to let their children take the tests.
Former governor Jeb Bush has said of opponents of the standards that while “criticisms and conspiracy theories are easy attention grabbers”, he instead wanted to hear their solutions to the problems in American education.
According the National Education Association, the Common Core State Standards are supported by 76% of its teacher members.
Kentucky was the first to implement the Common Core standards, and local school districts began offering new math and English curricula based on the standard in August 2010. In 2013, Time magazine reported that the high school graduation rate had increased from 80 percent in 2010 to 86 percent in 2013, test scores went up 2 percentage points in the second year of using the Common Core test, and the percentage of students considered to be ready for college or a career, based on a battery of assessments, went up from 34 percent in 2010 to 54 percent in 2013. According to Sarah Butrymowicz from The Atlantic,
“Kentucky’s experience over the past three school years suggests it will be a slow and potentially frustrating road ahead for the other states that are using the Common Core. Test scores are still dismal, and state officials have expressed concern that the pace of improvement is not fast enough. Districts have also seen varying success in changing how teachers teach, something that was supposed to change under the new standards.”
The Common Core Standards are considered to be more rigorous than the standards they replaced in Kentucky. Kentucky’s old standards received a “D” in an analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. School officials in Kentucky believe it will take several more years to adjust to the new standards, which received an A- in math and a B+ in English from the Fordham Institute.
Adoption and Implementation of Common Core Standards by states
The chart below (not shown-go to source-Wikipedia) contains the adoption status of the Common Core Standards as of December 1, 2013. At least 12 states have introduced legislation to repeal the standards. Among the territories of the United States (not listed in the chart below), the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the American Samoa Islands have adopted the standards while Puerto Rico has not adopted the standards.  As of June 18, 2014, four states have repealed or are withdrawing from Common Core. Nine additional member states have legislation in some stage of the process that would repeal Common Core participation.