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 to enter the workforce.
In the 1990s, the "Standards & Accountability Movement" began in the U.S. as states began writing standards (a) outlining what students were expected to know and to be able to do at each grade level, and (b) implementing assessments 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 English and language arts. 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. The NGA Center and CCSSO do this by offering a public license which is used by State Departments of Education. The license states that use of the standards must be "in support" of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. It also requires attribution and a copyright notice, except when a state or territory has adopted the standards "in whole".
Forty-two of the fifty U.S. states and the District of Columbia are members of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, with the states of Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Indiana, and South Carolina not adopting the initiative at a state level. Minnesota adopted the English Language Arts standards but not the Mathematics standards. Although a fast trend the curriculum lost momentum and found at least 12 states introducing legislation to prohibit implementation. Three states that initially adopted Common Core have since decided to repeal or replace it, namely Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.
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.
Until the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed in December 2015, the US Department of Education had encouraged states to adopt the Common Core Standards by tying the grant of waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act to adoption of the Standards. However, the Every Student Succeeds Act not only replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, it also expressly prohibits the Department of Education from attempting to "influence, incentivize, or coerce State adoption of the Common Core State Standards ... or any other academic standards common to a significant number of States."
Though the Common Core State Standards do not cover science and social studies content standards, the Next Generation Science Standards were released in April 2012 and have been adopted by many states. 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.
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:
The stated goal of the mathematics standards is to achieve greater focus and coherence in the curriculum. This is largely in response to the criticism that American mathematics curricula are "a mile wide and an inch deep".
The mathematics standards include Standards for Mathematical Practice and Standards for Mathematical Content.
The Standards mandate that eight principles of mathematical practice be taught:
The practices are adapted from the five process standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the five strands of proficiency in the U.S. National Research Council's Adding It Up report. These practices are to be taught in every grade from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Details of how these practices are to be connected to each grade level's mathematics content are left to local implementation of the Standards.
As an example of mathematical practice, here is the full description of the sixth practice:
- Attend to precision
- Mathematically proficient students try to communicate precisely to others. They try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning. They state the meaning of the symbols they choose, including using the equal sign consistently and appropriately. They are careful about specifying units of measure, and labeling axes to clarify the correspondence with quantities in a problem. They calculate accurately and efficiently, express numerical answers with a degree of precision appropriate for the problem context. In the elementary grades, students give carefully formulated explanations to each other. By the time they reach high school they have learned to examine claims and make explicit use of definitions.
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.)
|Domain||Kindergarten||Grade 1||Grade 2||Grade 3||Grade 4||Grade 5||Grade 6||Grade 7||Grade 8|
|Counting and Cardinality||X|
|Operations and Algebraic Thinking||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|Number and Operations in Base 10||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|Measurement and Data||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|Number and Operations—Fractions||X||X||X|
|Ratios and Proportional Relationships||X||X|
|The Number System||X||X||X|
|Expressions and Equations||X||X||X|
|Statistics and Probability||X||X||X|
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, nor does the Common Core prescribe how a particular standard should be taught. 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), 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. Mathematical Modeling is a Standard for 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".
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.
- 1. 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.
- 2. 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.
- 3. 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.
- 4. 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):
- Grade 3:
- Develop an understanding of fractions as numbers.
- Grade 4:
- 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.
- Grade 5:
- 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
- 1. Interpret expressions that represent a quantity in terms of its context.★
- a. Interpret parts of an expression, such as terms, factors, and coefficients.
- b. 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.
- 2. 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 consortia with different approaches. 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.
As of October 2015, SBAC membership was reduced to 20 members: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, U.S. Virgin Islands, The Bureau of Indian Education, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wyoming.
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 PARCC. 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 State Standards have drawn both support and criticism from politicians, analysts, and 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. Textbooks bearing a Common Core label are not verified by any agency and may or may not represent the intent of the Common Core Standards. Some critics believe most current textbooks are not actually aligned to the Common Core, while others disagree.
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 State Standards address these issues and "level the playing field" for students. They point out that adoption of the Common Core State Standards and how best to test students are two separate issues.
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." According to the National Education Association, the Common Core State Standards are supported by 76% of its teacher members.
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".
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 and education historian, 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. 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".
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. 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. In 2014, Bobby Jindal wrote that "It has become fashionable in the news media to believe there is a right-wing conspiracy against Common Core."
Diane Ravitch has also stated:
The financial cost of implementing Common Core has barely been mentioned in the national debates. All Common Core testing will be done online. This is a bonanza for the tech industry and other vendors. Every school district must buy new computers, new teaching materials, and new bandwidth for the testing. At a time when school budgets have been cut in most states and many thousands of teachers have been laid off, school districts across the nation will spend billions to pay for Common Core testing. Los Angeles alone committed to spend $1 billion on iPads for the tests; the money is being taken from a bond issue approved by voters for construction and repair of school facilities. Meanwhile, the district has cut teachers of the arts, class size has increased, and necessary repairs are deferred because the money will be spent on iPads. The iPads will be obsolete in a year or two, and the Pearson content loaded onto the iPads has only a three-year license.
Writer Jonathan Kozol uses the metaphor "cognitive decapitation" to describe the unfulfilling educational experience students are going through due to the subjects that have been excluded in their curriculum as a result of the Common Core. He notes cognitive decapitation is often experienced in urban schools of color, while white children have the privilege to continue engaging in a creative curriculum that involves the arts.
In 2016, ACT, Inc., administrators of the ACT college readiness assessment, reported that there is a disconnect between what is emphasized in the Common Core and what is deemed important for college readiness by some college instructors. ACT has been a proponent of the Common Core Standards, and Chief Executive Officer Martin Roorda stated that "ACT's findings should not be interpreted as a rebuke of the Common Core."
Kentucky was the first to implement the Common Core State 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 State 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.
The chart below contains the adoption status of the Common Core State Standards as of May 12, 2015. 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 May 12, 2015, three states have repealed Common Core. Nine additional member states have legislation in some stage of the process that would repeal Common Core participation.
|Alabama||Formally adopted||State school board voted to rescind the agreement that commits the state to adoption. However, state standards are still aligned with Common Core State Standards.|
|Arizona||Repealed||The Arizona State Board of Education voted to reject Common Core on October 26, 2015. The vote was 6–2 in favor of repeal.|
|District of Columbia||Formally adopted|
|Florida||Non-Member||Dropped in favor of "Florida State Standards", which are based on Common Core standards.|
|Indiana||Repealed||Implementation paused by law for one year in May 2013 and under public review; formally withdrew in March 2014, but retained many of the standards.|
|Kansas||Formally adopted||Defunding legislation passed Senate, narrowly failed in House in July 2013.|
|Louisiana||Formally adopted||Governor signed executive order to withdraw state from PARCC assessment program. (June 2014).|
|Massachusetts||Formally adopted||Delayed Common Core testing for two years in November 2013. Ballot question on future of standards in 2016 has been ruled against by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court as of August 12, 2016.|
|Michigan||Formally adopted||Implementation was paused for a time but was approved to continue.|
|Minnesota||Partially adopted||English standards only, math standards rejected.|
|Mississippi||Formally adopted||Withdrew from PARCC testing on January 16, 2015.|
|New Hampshire||Formally adopted|
|New Jersey||Formally adopted||Adopted in 2010.|
|New Mexico||Formally adopted|
|New York||Formally adopted||Full implementation of assessment delayed until 2022.|
|North Carolina||Under review|||
|North Dakota||Formally adopted|
|Ohio||Formally adopted||There is currently legislation in progress to repeal Common Core from the state.|
|Oklahoma||Repealed||Legislation restoring state standards signed June 5, 2014.|
|Pennsylvania||Formally adopted||Paused implementation in May 2013.|
|Rhode Island||Formally adopted|
|South Carolina||Repealed||A bill to repeal the Standards beginning in the 2015-2016 school year was officially signed by Governor Nikki Haley in June 2014 after deliberation in the state legislature.|
|South Dakota||Formally adopted|
|West Virginia||Formally adopted|
Although states were not required to adopt the Common Core State Standards to compete for Race to the Top dollars, they were at an advantage if they did so. The initiative's scoring system awarded additional point to states for promising to adopt those standards by August 2, 2010. Many of the states – 41 in total – that applied for Race to the Top funds promised in their applications to adopt the Common Core State Standards.
When the Obama administration put forward the criteria for Race to the Top grants, one of the primary requirements was that the state adopt a common set of high-quality standards, in collaboration with other states, that were internationally benchmarked and led to "college and career readiness." These were widely understood to be the Common Core standards. In short order, almost every state agreed to adopt them, even states with clearly superior standards like Massachusetts and Indiana, despite the fact that these new standards had never been field-tested anywhere. No one can say with certainty whether the Common Core standards will improve education, whether they will reduce or increase achievement gaps among different groups, or how much it will cost to implement them. Some scholars believe they will make no difference, and some critics say they will cost billions to implement; others say they will lead to more testing.