Q&A: A Crash Course On Common Core

Mar 18, 2014
Originally published on March 19, 2014 3:50 pm

Confused about the Common Core State Standards? Join the club. That's not to say the new benchmarks in reading and math are good or bad, working smoothly or kicking up sparks as the wheels come off. It is simply an acknowledgement that, when the vast majority of U.S. states adopt a single set of educational standards all at roughly the same time, a little confusion is inevitable.

Below is a handy FAQ about Common Core. We'll continue answering your questions in the coming months. You can post them in the comments section, or on Twitter and Facebook using #commonq.

What are the Common Core State Standards?

With the Core, it's best to begin at the beginning. They are benchmarks in English language arts and math that clarify the skills each child should have at each grade level. From the Common Core's own website: "The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live." If you have a few hours you're looking to fill, you can tuck into the standards one by one.

The standards have been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. One good way to understand what they are is to know what they're replacing. States control their learning standards, and Common Core doesn't change that. But before the Core, state standards varied widely across the country and, in many cases, were weak and outdated. The Core standards are widely considered an upgrade.

The other problem the standards are meant to address is student mobility. Kids move around a lot. The 2000 census found that 18 percent of kids had moved in the last year. And, when they moved from school to school or state to state, many found themselves struggling to cope with very different standards.

Opponents of the Common Core argue that the standards tell teachers what texts they should teach. Do they?

Not really. The only required reading from Common Core comes in the 11th and 12th grades, when kids will be expected to read and understand foundational documents of historical and literary significance: the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln's second inaugural address.

Much of the confusion comes from the Core's Appendix B. It includes dozens of titles that the Core's writers consider "text exemplars" — in other words, suggestions for teachers looking for age-appropriate reading material that will help their students reach Core benchmarks. They include everything from Green Eggs and Ham to Shakespeare's Sonnet 73. But these texts are recommended, not required. The standards also call for a balance of informational texts and literature but, again, do not require specific books or reading materials.

Will the Core come with new standardized tests?

Yes. The states that have adopted the Core have divided into two consortia, and each will soon field-test new, Common-Core-aligned assessments. Beginning next week, some 4 million students (in grades three to 11) will take these new tests in math and language arts for the first time. This early testing will help test makers figure out what test items truly gauge "proficiency" (or grade-level skills) and what the cutoff scores should be. These tests are expected to be tougher for many of the children who take them. New York, an early adopter of the Core, has already administered Core-aligned tests and seen significant drops in student scores.

How do teachers unions feel about the Common Core?

That's tricky. Both the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers support the standards, but their rank-and-file are uncomfortable and increasingly unhappy with the standards' implementation. Seven out of 10 teachers say the transition to a curriculum tied to Common Core isn't working. Two-thirds of teachers say they were not asked for input on how to develop the implementation plan. Teachers also say they need time to make sure they understand the standards and are able to talk to parents about them. In the meantime, the unions are calling for a delay not in implementation of the new standards but in holding teachers accountable for test results. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has already said teachers there won't be judged this year on student performance as the state transitions from old standards to new.

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Now, the Common Core is still pretty controversial and, to some, confusing. So we recently asked you, our listeners, to send us your questions about it. And we're going to answer some of them now with Claudio. He joins me here in the studio. Hey there, Claudio.


CORNISH: And another key voice from our education team, Eric Westervelt. Welcome, Eric.


CORNISH: And we're going to start with the most common question by far - I'm sure the one you hear the most often, Eric - what are the Common Core State Standards?

WESTERVELT: Well, these are benchmarks, Audie, not curricula, in English language, arts and math. They're voluntary standards, and they aimed to raise the bar really and clarify what every American kid, K-12, needs to know and should be able to demonstrate at each grade level. Up until this point, there has been a real hodgepodge of state standards and they varied widely. In many states, there is deep concern that these standards were outdated, weak and ineffectual. And this matters a lot for two big reasons. One, the bar in too many cases were simply too low for kids. And two, children move a lot within cities and states and across state lines.

Many said, look, it's just unacceptable that students in different states are learning at very different levels. And that it's no longer OK that the U.S. education system continues to fall behind internationally.

CORNISH: Claudio, another thing listeners asked about was these arguments from opponents of the Core, saying that the standards tell teachers what books they should teach. Is that true?

SANCHEZ: It's not true. The only required reading that 11th- and 12th-grade teachers must cover and the kids will be tested on are the Declaration of Independence, The Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and President Lincoln's second inaugural address.

WESTERVELT: Now, this is all tied to a standard that says that "11th and 12th-graders must be able to analyze 18th and 19th century foundational documents of historical and literally significance." That's a quote. Now, everything else teachers and school districts will decide on their own. Appendix B of the Common Core, for example, provides some samples of reading materials that show teachers the great, appropriate text complexity, things like sentence structure and vocabulary. But again, the Common Core does not require specific books or reading materials.

CORNISH: I want to talk about testing now. Eric, as you mentioned, in the past, states have used their own standards and written their own tests. Claudio, what more can you tell us about how testing will change under the Common Core?

SANCHEZ: Well, the testing will be tougher. And here's an example. Math tests, grades three to five: Mrs. Morales has a bag of beads. She gives Elena five beads. Damian gets eight more beads than Elena. And then she gives Trish four times as many beads as Damian. Mrs. Morales has 10 beads left in her bag. Now, how many beads did Damian and Trish receive? Show or explain how you arrived at each answer. This is not your mother's math problem. I mean...

CORNISH: Not just the answer, but how you arrived there.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. And so next week, four million students, grades three to 11, will take these field tests in math and language arts for the very first time. They'll replace, as Eric was saying earlier, the hodgepodge of state tests that have not been very high quality. This testing will, by the way, help test makers figure out what questions and test items truly gauge proficiency or grade-level skills, and what the cutoff scores are going to be.

CORNISH: Eric, one more testing question. It comes from Kaye Adkins of St. Joseph, Missouri.

KAYE ADKINS: How can anyone who reads and understands the Common Core Standards pretend that standardized tests will actually measure what the Standards call for?

WESTERVELT: Well, Kaye raises a great question. I mean, Claudio mentioned the math example. In language arts, Common Core Standards are placing more emphasis on analysis than many state standards. The goal is to get students to try to think and read more critically and creatively, to move away from rote memorization and teaching to a test.

The Common Core encourage emphasis on what students can accomplish through using language - how to build a point-by-point argument based on a real deeper understanding of the reading and drawing, specific examples. But to Kaye's testing question, opponents really on the left and the right are now saying, wait a minute, why this continued emphasis on a standardized test? Are you really not just doubling down on a sort of test and punishment program launched by George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind?

CORNISH: Now, finally, we got this tweet from Vincent DeTillio in response to your story, Claudio, on teachers unions' fraught relationship with the Core. The unions support the new standards but want to slow things down. And DeTillio writes: Is universal delay any better than universal implementation?

SANCHEZ: Well, first, let me say, here's why the unions, both National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, are worried. It turns out that seven out of 10 teachers say the transition to a curriculum tied to the Common Core isn't working right now. Teachers also say that they need time to make sure that they understand the standards and are able to, more importantly, talk to parents about them, because parents right now are pretty clueless about all of this.

Also, teachers worry that they're going to be evaluated based on the test results from the Common Core tests that are coming down the pike. And they don't think this is fair because they haven't even had a chance to teach, let alone understand what those standards are or at least the tests themselves are going to look like. The unions clearly do support the standards, but they worry that this all is unfolding in such chaotic way that they're calling for either a moratorium or a two-year delay.

CORNISH: NPR's Claudio Sanchez. Claudio, thank you.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

CORNISH: And NPR's Eric Westervelt. Eric, thanks for joining us.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.