Common Core State Standards: What You Need to Know

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD
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At a Glance

  • The Common Core State Standards are a set of uniform academic standards for K–12 math and English language arts.

  • Most states now use these standards in public schools.

  • Some parents and educators view the standards as controversial.

States have used academic standards in schools for decades. And the latest set of standards, the Common Core State Standards, has generated a lot of buzz. Here’s what you need to know about the Common Core.

What Common Core State Standards Are

The Common Core is a set of academic standards for what every student is expected to learn in each grade level, from kindergarten through high school. They cover math and English language arts (ELA).

The standards are publicly available to read. For example, a Common Core math standard for first grade is that students should be able to add and subtract within 20 by the end of the school year. A Common Core ELA standard is that students should be able to decode one-syllable words at the end of first grade.

Today, 36 states and the District of Columbia use the Common Core in schools. One state—Minnesota—uses only the Common Core ELA standards. The other states either never adopted the Common Core, or adopted it but are rewriting or replacing it. Check with your state’s department of education to see if your state uses Common Core or another set of standards.

Why States Adopted Common Core

Before the Common Core, each state had its own academic standards. The result was that students had very different learning expectations in different states.

For example, a student might have been considered proficient (or pretty good) in reading in one state. But the same student might not have even met basic reading standards in another state.

A lot of people didn’t like the lack of consistency between state standards. Concerns grew as U.S. students scored poorly or just average on international tests. There was also a belief that some state’s standards didn’t challenge students enough.

Business leaders were concerned too. Education plays a key role in growing the economy. Employers said they had trouble finding enough skilled workers in the United States. Many believed that state standards needed to be updated for modern jobs.

State governors and education leaders decided to do something. So they came together and created the Common Core State Standards. They also brought in teachers, parents and other education experts to help work on the standards.

The goal of the Common Core is to help students graduate with the skills they need to succeed in college and in the workforce. Another goal is to make sure students are getting a strong education, no matter which state they live in. And when the same standards are used everywhere, parents and educators can compare how students measure up against their peers.

How Common Core Differs From Previous State Standards

Common Core replaced many sets of standards in different states. So the changes aren’t the same in every state. In general, though, the Common Core makes some big shifts in what kids learn.

General Changes to ELA Standards

  • Read complex texts and academic language: Common Core requires students to work more with “complex texts.” These are books, essays, stories, poems and other texts that have higher reading levels. They may also have more levels of meaning and require more background knowledge to understand. Complex texts also use “academic language,” or more formal writing. For instance, you’ll see this language in classic literature, historical documents and business reports.

  • Cite evidence instead of personal experience: In the past, it was more common for students to write a paper based on their personal experience. The Common Core changed this. It requires that students use evidence in texts to argue, speak and write. For instance, if a student is writing a paper on immigration, he must cite news articles, rather than rely on personal feelings.

  • Read more nonfiction texts: The Common Core has a bigger emphasis on nonfiction texts than previous standards. For instance, in grade school, the standards require a 50-50 split between fiction and nonfiction. The goal is to build students’ knowledge of the world.

General Changes to Math Standards

  • Focus on fewer math concepts: Previous state standards often required students to cover many different math concepts, but without a lot of depth. The Common Core covers fewer math topics. However, the expectation is that students will work more deeply on those topics.

  • Build on previously learned math concepts: In the Common Core, math concepts build on one another. What a student learns in fourth grade must be applied in fifth grade, and so on. Students are expected to have a global view of math, not just understand individual topics.

  • Show more understanding of math concepts: Many previous state math standards focused on simply knowing the right steps to get the right answer to a math problem. For instance, students had to learn a standard way to do long division. Common Core expands the focus to requiring students to show understanding of the concepts. It’s not enough to get the right answer. Students have to show why it’s the right answer and how they arrived at it.

Why Some View Common Core as Controversial

Common Core can be a controversial topic. Here are some of the reasons why some parents and educators oppose the standards.

  • Keeping local control over schools: Some critics say the Common Core takes away local control over schools. Because the standards are uniform, they fear states may lose the ability to set standards for schools. However, Common Core is a state-led, not federal, initiative. States are free to reject Common Core (and many have done so). Even if a state adopts Common Core, it can still decide what curriculum and educational programs to use.

  • Making sure standards aren’t too hard for kids: Others say the Common Core is too hard and not “developmentally appropriate” for students. They say students are expected to do far more at younger ages than in the past. This criticism applies to many state academic standards, however, not just Common Core. And many believe high expectations help prepare kids to succeed as adults.

  • Reducing standardized testing: Some critics feel the Common Core encourages standardized testing because it’s uniform across states. Importantly, though, the Common Core doesn’t require standardized testing. Yearly testing requirements come from federal law. Advocates often argue that standardized testing is important because it holds schools accountable for kids with learning and thinking differences.

  • Adopting Common Core without enough time: Finally, some have expressed concern over how the Common Core was adopted. Some teachers feel they didn’t have enough time to prepare for them. And some believe states were pressured into adopting the standards.

Common Core and Students With Learning and Thinking Differences

The concept of academic standards isn’t new. Struggling students may face the same issues with Common Core that they faced with previous standards.

Yet there are some big shifts with the Common Core. These may affect students with learning and thinking differences in different ways. For instance, Common Core’s emphasis on complex texts may be challenging for some kids with reading issues. At the same time, Common Core moves away from rote math drilling and toward understanding math concepts. This may benefit other kids.

Keep in mind that IEPs must be aligned to grade-level standards. If your child has an IEP and your state uses Common Core, the IEP must be linked to the Common Core and explain which supports your child needs to meet the standards.

If you’re concerned about how Common Core will affect your child’s education, talk with your child’s teacher. You can also call an IEP team meeting to ask questions about the standards.

Key Takeaways

  • The Common Core is a set of standards for what every student should learn in each grade level.

  • Even if a state adopts Common Core, it can still decide what curriculum and educational programs to use.

  • Your child’s IEP must be aligned to your state’s standards, which may be the Common Core.

About the Author

About the Author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD 

is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Melody Musgrove, EdD 

served as director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education.

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