Common Core State Standards: An overview

What are academic/instructional standards?

Standards are instructional guidelines stating the knowledge and skills students should possess in specific subjects at different grade levels. California adopted its first statewide set of standards in English language arts and math in 1997.

What are the Common Core State Standards?

The Common Core State Standards are national instructional standards adopted by nearly every state in the U.S., centered on the idea that students from California to Florida should graduate high school equally capable of succeeding in college and careers. The standards are not curriculum – schools and teachers still devise curriculum customized to the needs of their students.

Who came up with the Common Core State Standards?

The idea was discussed as early as 2007 by the Council of Chief State School Officers. In 2008, the council and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices released a report advising states to upgrade their standards by adopting a “common core” of internationally benchmarked standards in math and English language arts. In 2009, the groups launched the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The completed standards were presented to states in mid-2010.

Who is using the Common Core State Standards?

As if June 2014, 43 states, Washington D.C., the Department of Defense and most U.S. territories have adopted the standards. Minnesota adopted only the English language arts standards. Texas, Alaska, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Indiana, Virginia and Puerto Rico have not adopted either standard. California modified the standards during its adoption.

What, specifically, do the Common Core State Standards attempt to accomplish?

The standards stress deep academic knowledge, skills in writing, reading, listening and speaking, and in applying math techniques, as well as the ability to apply their knowledge and skills to real-world situations. The standards emphasize critical thinking and collaborative learning, in which students often work in teams and help drive their own education – as opposed to memorizing reams of material presented by teachers in lectures.

What are the Common Core State Standards based on?

The standards draw from existing state standards, education research and review of the standards in national and international assessments. In English language arts, designers looked at the National Assessment of Education Progress. In math, they looked at the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

How do the Common Core State Standards alter English language arts instruction?

Technically, these standards are known as the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. That’s an important distinction because while the bulk of the changes they make are in English language arts, they are also generating changes in these other subject areas in grades six through 12.

The standards require that students become adept at closely reading increasingly complex texts – dubbed a “staircase of complexity” – as they prepare for college and careers. They also mandate a focus on academic vocabulary, urging growth of that vocabulary through conversation, direct instruction and reading. The Common Core emphasizes teaching students to read, write and speak based on evidence in the texts they read, including non-fiction, informational texts.

This is a shift away from previous practices in which students were asked to answer questions based on how texts relate to their experiences.

Under the Common Core, non-fiction, informational texts are expected to make up half of the reading of students in grades one through five – including materials from history/social studies, science, technical studies and the arts. In older grades, literary nonfiction is also included – another shift – though literature continues to form the basis of actual English language arts classes.

Related to the use of informational texts, students are to build their knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. Student are to practice these skills in classes throughout the school day.

For example, the standards require that first-grade students learn to “describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details” while they require sixth-graders in science learn to “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.”

California modified the standards to fit with the state’s specific needs. One such change: Keeping cursive writing.

For more information, go to: www.corestandards.org/other-resources/key-shifts-in-english-language-arts.

How do the Common Core State Standards change math instruction?

First, the Common Core calls for a greater focus on fewer topics. In grades K-2, students focus on the concepts, skills and problem solving related to adding and subtraction. Multiplication and division are the focus in grades three through five; ratios, proportional relationships and early algebraic expressions arrive in grades six and seven; rational numbers are added in grade seven; linear algebra and linear functions arrive in grade eight.

The standards generally delay algebra 1, which had been an eighth-grade focus for many California schools, until high school. But the subject also becomes more complex due to the shifting of concepts that are taught under the algebra 1 umbrella. Students who master the pre-algebra material taught through seventh grade will still be able to take algebra 1 in eighth grade. Students who don’t take algebra 1 in eighth grade will typically take a course that includes a significant share of algebra concepts more rigorous than non-algebra eighth-grade math courses previously taught.

The standards also emphasize linking topics and thinking across grades, focusing on a coherent progression from grade to grade.

Classes are to pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application with equal intensity.

Conceptual understanding indicates understanding of key concepts, including place value or ratios. This means understanding why formulas and calculations work the way they do.

Procedural skills and fluency indicate speed and accuracy in calculation.

Application indicates students can apply their math skills to situations requiring that knowledge, not merely to classroom problems.

For more information, go to: www.corestandards.org/other-resources/key-shifts-in-mathematics.

How did schools prepare for the change to the Common Core State Standards?

California’s 2010 adoption of the Common Core Standards gave districts four years to prepare for the instruction changes. But the state had additional steps to take: it needed to devise curriculum frameworks, a tool used to guide schools in implementing the standards. The frameworks lay out specific goals year by year, grade by grade, subject by subject. California adopted its math framework in November 2013 and an English language arts framework in July 2014. Math textbooks aligned with the Common Core were recommended in January 2014, but English language arts books will not be recommended until fall 2015.

The state also adopted a new standardized testing system based on the Common Core standards.

That timeline – speedier than the state’s usual processes – meant school districts needed to update their existing curriculum to prepare for implementation in fall 2014

School districts formed teams of curriculum leaders, teaching coaches and teachers to create Common Core-aligned lesson plans and curriculum guides between the 2010-11 academic year and 2013-14. The schools consulted with universities, education experts and foundations to refine their approaches. In English language arts, many of the changes focused on adding non-fiction elements to court curricula and refocusing discussions and writing assignments based on existing texts. In math, schools re-ordered the information students were taught, in some cases buying supplemental lesson modules from textbook publishers to fill gaps.

Schools also launched intensive teacher training, although some efforts were hampered by state budget cuts that prompted districts to eliminate teacher development days to save money.

Some districts adopted textbooks with attached lesson plans and assignments without waiting for state recommendations, drawing on the experience of school districts in states that implemented the Common Core before California. Others waited for the state’s official list of recommended Common Core textbooks in math to adopt books; still others decided to test new math books in 2014-15 or later, rather than disrupt the preparations also conducted to adjust educational approaches.

How is the state changing its standardized tests?

California has adopted a set of Common Core-aligned tests developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two multi-state groups funded by the U.S. Department of Education to create such exams. The assessments use computer adaptive testing, which means they adjust the question difficulty based on each students’ answers – providing clear indicators of their strengths and knowledge bases. To prepare for the tests, districts have been ramping up their technology, wiring schools for internet access and purchasing new computers for testing.

The tests include essay style questions in English language arts and math questions that stress conceptual understanding, procedural fluency and real-world applications.

California conducted a small pilot for the tests in spring 2013, followed by the nation’s largest field test, involving more than 3 million students in grades three through eight and grade 11 in spring 2014. The tests will be given officially for the first time in spring 2015.

Some school stakeholders have reservations about the standardized tests.

For more information, go to: www.smarterbalanced.org.

What about history and science?

Common Core State Standards focused on English language arts and math because those areas develop skills used in other subject areas. The standards do not change history and science instruction as such, but do spell out reading, writing, speaking and listening skills to be learned and practiced in those classes.

Are any other state or national standards changes coming?

Yes. There are nationwide efforts underway to revise science, language and arts instruction. California is also working to update its history/social science standards.

Science: The science program is called the Next Generation Science Standards, and is being developed with the help of the National Research Council and National Science Teachers Association, among others. California helped develop the standards and adopted them, with some modifications, in 2013. The state is now working to develop a curriculum framework.

Language: The National Standards for Learning Languages Standards have been aligned with the Common Core by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. California adopted its standards in 2009.

Arts: Led by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, these new standards were given public review in 2014. The coalition is now seeking teachers to pilot assessments based on the standards. California adopted its art content standards in 2001 and a curriculum framework in 2004.

History/social studies: California began work on a revised curriculum framework in 2008, but suspended them in 2009 when the legislature passed a bill halting all such changes to curriculum. In 2014, the state was allowed to take up the standards again. A final version is expected in winter 2015. The state last adopted standards in 1998.

California Common Core Adoption Timeline

June 2010: Common Core State Standards Initiative releases the final version of its standards for English language arts and math, an effort that took three years from conception to completion.

August 2010: California State Board of Education adopts the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts. California is the 29th of 43 states to adopt the standards.

January 2013: State Board of Education modifies the math standards.

March 2013: State Board of Education modifies the English language arts standards.

November 2013: State Board of Education adopts a framework for math instruction, a tool that guides schools in developing curriculum and instruction.

January 2014: State Board of Education recommends 31 Common Core-aligned math textbook programs for use by K-12 schools. For the first time, schools may choose textbook materials from the list or conduct independent reviews of other materials.

March 2014: California receives federal permission to skip mandated state testing and reporting in English language arts and math so it can field test Common Core-aligned standardized tests from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The tests are given to more than 3 million California students in the largest such field test ever conducted.

July 2014: State Board of Education adopts a framework for English language arts instruction, including a framework for English language development for English learners.

Fall 2014: California schools required to fully implement Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts. Many schools prepared for the change assigning teams of teachers to update lesson plans and repeatedly revising the plans to ensure maximum effectiveness.

Spring 2015: California students take their first official round of Common Core-aligned English Language arts and math standardized tests.

Common Core: Voices

“The Common Core State Standards are our next best step in education.  We are using all that we know, including what has worked and not worked for the last 12 years.  The combination of CCSS and 21st Century Skills is opening new possibilities in the classroom and preparing our students not only for the present, but for the future.  The future is here.”

Kathy Harris

Harris is a 28-year teacher and Common Core implementation coach in the Piner-Olivet Union School District, a former regional director of the California Reading and Literature Project at Sonoma State University and member of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. She helped review Common Core English language arts standards during their development and helped California modify the standards to fit the state’s needs.

Remarks in interview by Learning First Alliance, a Virginia-based non-profit educational partnership


“They put teachers back in control of crafting and tailoring the education of their students. Critical thinking skills can now be part of our students’ educational foundation, and we can decide how to best teach that.”

California Teachers Association


“The world is changing. For our students to be ready for careers and college, our schools must change, too. Policy makers can debate the pace of change, but outside our schools, in the world of work, there’s no signs things are slowing down.”

Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Remarks, CTA video, 2013


“We’ve reached a real turning point for California schools, I believe. We’re on a path to preparing all our students to be career and college ready, to closing the achievement gap, to narrowing the digital divide. We’re on a path to a smarter, stronger California. Much more to do, but working together we’ll get there.”

Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Implementing the Common Core: Reports from the Field, July 1, 2014


“These standards have the capacity to change education in the best of ways – setting loose the creativity and innovation of educators at the local level, raising the bar for students, strengthening our economy and building a clearer path to the middle class…. I believe the Common Core State Standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.

Arne Duncan, U.S. Education Secretary

Remarks at the American Society of News Editors Annual Convention, Capital Hilton, Washington, D.C., 2013


“The Common Core is better aligned to college and career-ready standards than the prior efforts. Students who do well in the Common Core should be able to succeed in college. And we’re seeing it as for all students, and not just the group that’s going on to four-year colleges but for all sorts of post-secondary education, community colleges, specialized training programs and things of that sort.”

Michael Kirst, State Board of Education president, Stanford University professor emeritus


Remarks during an October 2012 interview for the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education

“For the first time in a generation, nearly every state has answered our call to raise their standards for teaching and learning. Some of the worst schools in the country have made real gains in math and reading.”

President Barack Obama

Remarks during 2012 speech to Democratic National Convention