It’s been almost a decade since governors and state superintendents started work on what would become the Common Core State Standards, and five years since those standards sparked a political firestorm that nearly burnt them to a crisp. Predictably, a recent study of ours found that most states that succumbed to that political pressure ended up with standards that were worse—less rigorous, less clear, and less helpful for teachers, students, and parents. But thankfully, it also confirmed that most states remained steadfast, meaning they still have the Common Core or something very close to it.
To these states we say: Don’t fix what’s not broken. The Common Core standards in math and English language arts are still “best-in-class,” and studies by Fordham and others demonstrate that implementation is still very much a work in progress. So by all means, keep the focus on helping educators understand the higher expectations and providing them with the resources—like subject-specific professional development and content-rich curricula—to meet them.
That said, we understand that some states still face pressure to ditch the Common Core. And eventually all states will face the task of updating them. After all, they weren’t handed down from Mount Sinai, and eventually they will grow long in the tooth, especially as research yields new insights. So how can states ensure that their next round of standards revisions—whenever it occurs—is a step forward, rather than a step backward?
Fortunately, our expert reviewers highlighted specific improvements that a few enterprising states have made to the standards, as well as some other areas where improvement is clearly possible:
Recommendations for English language arts
1. Further develop the disciplinary literacy standards—especially for grades six through twelve.
Each discipline uses language in particular ways to create, disseminate, and evaluate knowledge. So it’s important that students develop an understanding of these differences. However, as noted in our updated review, the literacy standards in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects (i.e., the Common Core’s “disciplinary literacy” standards) could be strengthened, especially in grades six through twelve. Most obviously, states could develop specific standards in speaking and listening, and in language, since both of these domains are omitted entirely from the Core’s disciplinary literacy standards.
2. Clarify the differences between ninth and tenth grade and between eleventh and twelfth grade.
At the high school level, the Common Core English language arts standards are divided into two-year grade bands (nine and ten and eleven and twelve) “to allow schools, districts, and states flexibility in high school course design.” However, reviewers found that this lack of specificity resulted in redundancies across grade levels, making it difficult for teachers to know how expectations should increase or evolve from one grade to the next. Consequently, states should consider creating grade-specific English language arts standards for high school.
3. Make targeted improvements to the writing standards.
California has made some useful additions to the standards for writing. For example, students are now expected to “write routinely over extended…and shorter time frames” starting in grade two instead of grade three, and the standards for higher grades include more detailed expectations related to thesis statements (grade six) and dealing with counterarguments (grade seven). States might consider adopting similar improvements.
Recommendations for mathematics
1. Articulate clear pathways in high school math that are explicitly aligned with specific post-secondary and labor market outcomes.
Notably, both California and Massachusetts have effectively integrated the Common Core high school math standards, which are presented by conceptual category, with the appendix that accompanies them (which provides options for organizing those standards into courses). Still, most states could be clearer about how their high school courses fit together and what they prepare a student to do post-graduation. Ideally, high school standards would indicate which pathways prepare students for STEM or other quantitative college majors, for the intellectual demands of completing college with a non-STEM major, or for technical and nontechnical fields that may not require a four-year degree.
2. Add standards for advanced high school math courses.
Regardless of the path students choose, all of them should learn algebra, geometry, and statistics—and every student should take four years of high school math—rather than the three courses that most states currently require. More advanced “fourth year” courses could potentially include AP Probability and Statistics, as well as calculus (see California’s standards) and advanced quantitative reasoning courses (see Massachusetts’s standards).
Recommendation for both subjects
Take another look at the alignment between K–12 and pre-K.
Although a comprehensive review of states’ pre-K standards was beyond the scope of our report, both review teams noted that a few states had made a conscious effort to align their pre-K and K–12 standards—something that is clearly desirable in principle. Because it has been more than a decade since most states adopted their pre-K standards, the potential for some sort of misalignment is considerable. States that haven’t taken another look at this issue in consultation with early childhood experts may want to do so.
Our reviewers, as well as those of us at Fordham, believe the Common Core standards have aged well. But they aren’t perfect. So if state leaders believe they can ensure a rigorous revision process, they should consider embarking on a targeted update when the time is right. In the meantime, all states should continue to focus on where “higher standards” matter most: in the classroom.