College & Workforce Readiness

Even When States Revise Standards, the Core of the Common Core Remains

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 13, 2017 | Updated: November 13, 2017 4 min read
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For a while, the Common Core State Standards seemed to teeter on the brink of the abyss. State lawmakers were defecting left and right, convening committees to rewrite the standards.

But a review released on Monday of 24 states’ revisions show that they have largely preserved the common core’s most important features.

The report from Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports states’ efforts to improve their academic standards, does not explicitly compare old and new standards. But most of the nonprofit’s review criteria come directly out of the standards—such as a focus on “text complexity,” or ensuring that students encounter progressively more difficult reading at each grade level.

In essence, the “core of the core” is maintained in most states’ new English/language arts standards. In math, Achieve found that five states were missing elements that it deems necessary to set up students for later success. But states resisted the temptation to revert back to earlier standards, which were roundly criticized by math experts as overstuffed and incoherent.

“This is a good-news story; by and large, states do have strong college- and career-ready standards,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, which helped lead the common-core push.

What’s more, he said, most of the states’ revisions were aimed at providing more guidance and clarity to teachers. “You could tell some thought went into these revisions,” he said.

Core of the Core Preserved

The common-core standards, unveiled in 2010, were developed by groups representing the nation’s governors and state education chiefs with the goal of readying high school graduates for college or the workforce. At their peak, 45 states and the District of Columbia had signed up. But the standards became a political liability after the U.S. Department of Education gave states financial incentives to adopt them—and as teachers scrambled to find matching curricula and fretted about new exams linked to the expectations.

Many states subsequently tweaked the standards, renamed them, or replaced them. The Achieve report is probably the most comprehensive look at the post-common core landscape, and provides insights into the challenges other states will face as they revise their student expectations. (Most states do so every seven to 10 years.)

The study examines changes in 24 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia.

Six reviewers conducted the review against the criteria set out in the report.

In ELA, 20 of the 24 states included all of the markers Achieve looked for, including foundational reading skills; working with literature and nonfiction texts; and having students cite evidence from text when analyzing and making arguments.

Many states made additional clarifications or explanations to broaden features of the standards, the report notes. South Carolina, for example, includes standards on fluency all the way through 12th grade, while Alabama has students write poetry as early as grade 2.

Weaker in Math?

The report found more variation among the states’ math standards.

Every state still outlines expectations through Algebra II, and most preserved references to the mathematical practices—eight core ways students should grapple with math, such as being able to reason quantitatively. But it also found some gaps. Twelve of the states, for example, did not emphasize mathematical modeling in high school math; six also lacked statistics topics for high school.

Achieve deemed Oklahoma’s and Pennsylvania’s standards to be missing the most benchmarks, judging that they did not, for instance, sufficiently emphasize arithmetic in grades K-5 or require students to know single-digit sums and products by heart.

“It is no surprise that Oklahoma standards for English/language arts and mathematics would score differently than other states on indicators aligned to common core,” Tiffany Neill, the executive director of curriculum and instruction at the Oklahoma education department, said in a statement. “After repealing common core in 2014, Oklahoma was tasked with developing comprehensive standards and chose to engage thousands of Oklahoma educators and education stakeholders in every stage of their development. Our inclusive design process, and the final standards themselves received constructive and favorable reviews by Oklahomans, experts, and other evaluators.”

The state has also developed curriculum frameworks to help flesh out the standards, she added.

While the report aims at objectivity, it contains a strong viewpoint about what standards for students should contain. For example, it critiques states that added language expecting students to relate what they’ve read to their own lives, a common teaching practice in the pre-common core era.

And states were downgraded for not giving enough guidance on how to help teachers understand and use gauges of text complexity.

Both of those features wade into continuing debates over the best way to teach reading. Some critics of the common core have questioned whether it’s appropriate to have students of varying reading levels grapple with the same piece of text, for instance.

States received the report late last week, and due to the Veterans Day holiday, were still digesting the findings on Monday.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as Common Core Lives On When States Revise Their Standards, Study Says

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