The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were created by state governors and state education commissioners to ensure that students have access to high-quality educational standards that are consistent across the United States. In 2009, 48 states and the District of Columbia signed a memorandum of agreement with the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to draft the standards. Building on the standards that were established by states to align with their respective accountability policies, the NGA and CCSSO sought to include teachers, parents, administrators, and experts in the development of mathematics and English language arts standards. The focus of the standards was to ensure that students graduating from high schools would be college ready or prepared to enter the workforce. As of January 2014, 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Schools have adopted the CCSS. As of that time, Alaska, Texas, Virginia, and Nebraska had not adopted the CCSS, and Minnesota had adopted only the English language arts portion of the CCSS. It is estimated that 85% of all American students attend schools in states that have adopted the CCSS. This entry will cover a brief history of the standards movement, the development of the CCSS, assessments associated with the CCSS, costs of the CCSS, and a summary of the political discourse surrounding the adoption and implementation of the standards.
Standards-based education reform and the subsequent adoption of criterion-referenced exams by each of the states has been part of the educational policy discourse since the 1980s. Most scholars have identified the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk as the catalyst for the current wave of education reform. Multiple studies have been conducted that have examined the implementation of these standards and the degree to which students have made progress toward mastering the standards, with scholars concluding that the level of rigor of each test, or the definition of proficiency, is the greatest predictor of the percentage of students testing at the proficient level. These studies have relied on the alignment of state criterion-referenced exams with a norm-referenced test, typically the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Because each state has a different set of standards and a different definition of proficiency, comparisons across states are not possible. The CCSS represents an initiative to standardize both content standards and assessments across the states. Data from criterion-referenced exams would then be available to measure performance in all states and to enable comparisons across states.
Educational standards provide teachers with a clear understanding of the content and skills that students must master to successfully matriculate through the educational pipeline. Proponents of the CCSS have said that the standards promote equity because they are aligned to expectations in college and careers. Whereas unevenness of quality in standards exists on a state-by-state basis, the NGA and CCSSO maintain that under the CCSS, students in each grade level would learn the same evidence-based, rigorous content and skills regardless of their location in the United States.
The CCSS for English language arts and math were released on June 2, 2010. Several guiding principles were considered in the creation of the standards. The first goal was to create a set of fewer standards that were more rigorous, clearer, and interpretable for teachers to guide their instruction. Next, standards were only included when evidence suggested that mastery of that standard supported college and career readiness. According to the NGA and CCSSO, the CCSS were internationally benchmarked, meaning that international assessments and other nations’ curriculum standards were analyzed as part of the creation of the CCSS. The workgroups that drafted the standards differentiated between standards, or the expectations for what students should know and be able to do, and the curriculum, or the actual content of courses. The CCSS initiative was about creating common standards to be used across states, while localities and states are responsible for the development and adoption of curriculum. Last, the standards were focused on knowledge and skills across the curriculum that would be required for success in the 21st century.
The standards development process was completed in two steps by two different groups. The first group developed college and career readiness standards that described what students were expected to know and will be able to do on graduation from high school. The second group drafted K-12 content standards that focused on academic expectations in both elementary and secondary school. The college and career readiness standards were merged with the K-12 standards during the development process.
The English language arts standards increase in complexity over the course of students’ academic careers and are expressed through ability levels in terms of lexiles. Teachers use students’ lexile scores to choose appropriate reading materials and guide instruction. The standards are broken into five sub-elements: (1) reading, (2) writing, (3) speaking and listening, (4) language, and (5) media and technology. Reading standards are focused on what and how students read from a variety of texts, including literature and nonfiction writing in science, social studies, and other disciplines. Writing standards emphasize the capabilities of students to make clear arguments based on evidence, sound reasoning, and substantive claims. The speaking and listening standards require students to present and evaluate increasingly difficult concepts and information in one-on-one, small-group, and whole-class settings. Language standards are focused on students’ acquisition and growth of vocabulary, ability to use formal English in writing and speaking, and ability to express themselves informally in a variety of settings. Media and technology are integrated throughout the standards.
The math standards also increase in complexity throughout students’ academic careers; the rigor and ability level of the standards are expressed using quantiles. Teachers can use students’ quantile scores to gauge students’ understanding of core concepts and procedures; this helps guide instruction based on students’ readiness to learn new content. The standards for Grades K-5 emphasize the need for students to gain a foundation in whole numbers, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals. For the middle school grades, students build on that knowledge to apply it toward hands-on learning in geometry, algebra, probability, and statistics. Last, the high school standards are focused on students’ abilities to apply the mathematical concepts and procedures to real-life situations.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $330 million from the Race to the Top grant competition to two different consortia to develop assessments aligned to the CCSS. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) was awarded $186 million, while the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) was awarded $176 million. To ensure that assessments match individual state needs, states were asked to participate in the consortia either as a governing state or as a participating/advisory state. Governing states participated in the development of proposals to the Department of Education to obtain funding for the creation of assessments aligned to the standards. In addition, these states are members of the consortia advisory boards and have overseen the development of the assessments. Participating/advisory states have pledged to make use of the assessments developed by the governing states. When states joined either of the consortia, they signed a memorandum of understanding to use the consortia assessments to satisfy federal requirements for assessment. Full implementation of the PARCC and SBAC testing is expected in the 2014–2015 school year.
Estimates of costs associated with the CCSS vary widely and focus on the costs of the tests, the readiness for states to implement a system of computer-based assessments, the need for new textbooks and instructional materials, and professional development for teachers and educational leaders. As researchers and policy analysts begin to consider costs, they have categorized costs in two categories: (1) one-time transition costs and (2) ongoing costs and investments. Examples of one-time costs include new instructional materials aligned to the standards, professional development for educators, and new assessments to test student progress. Included in the cost estimates for new assessments are technological upgrades needed to administer the tests. Ongoing investments include maintenance of technology required to administer the assessments, replacement of obsolete equipment, updating instructional materials, and ongoing professional development. PARCC and SBAC have estimated the cost of their tests at $29.50 and $22.50 per student, respectively, which is not substantially different from what states currently pay for testing. Despite this fact, states have been concerned about the costs associated with testing the CCSS because neither PARCC nor SBAC have announced final prices. Several states have withdrawn from the testing consortia, leading to some concern that costs would increase. However, a study from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings suggests that defections from either group would cause minimal changes in cost.
As states implement the CCSS and public awareness of the standards has grown, arguments about the standards have become widespread. Proponents of the standards argue,
The standards are internationally benchmarked, which means that standards in the United States will compare favorably with other standards in terms of rigor. It is believed that this will improve the international ranking of American students over time.
The CCSS will allow for comparisons of student performance across states.
Because states no longer have to pay for their own test development, the costs for test development will decrease.
The CCSS will better prepare students for success in college and the workforce due to the increase in the rigor of the standards.
Optional pretest and progress monitoring tools that are associated with CCSS assessments will allow teachers to monitor student progress throughout the year.
The standards will benefit students with high mobility. Because states will now share the same standards, students who frequently move will be learning the same material even if they cross state lines.
The transition to the new standards will be difficult for teachers and students since most classrooms do not currently include this level of rigor.
The CCSS may cause outstanding teachers and administrators to leave the field due to the stress caused by the transition.
The CCSS will require younger children to learn more at a quicker pace, causing tremendous changes to early childhood education programs.
There is no equivalency test currently in development for students with special needs, which means that all children will have to take the newly developed CCSS assessments.
The CCSS are only focused on English language arts and mathematics; there are currently no science or social studies standards associated with the CCSS. (However, a similar multistate effort is under way to encourage states to adopt common science standards known as the Next Generation Science Standards.)
The CCSS will place even more value on high-stakes testing.
Some have concluded that the debate over the CCSS is mostly over whether the standards represent a loss of local control and a federal intrusion on education. In addition, opponents claim that the federal government would use assessment data in such a way that it would infringe on student and family privacy. Proponents have countered that the standards are not a national set of curricula and that they have not been funded by the federal government. They argue that the purpose of the standards is to create a single set of expectations of what students should know to better prepare them for college and the workforce.
See also Accountability, Standards-Based; Economic Development and Education; U.S. Department of Education