If you’re an educator, you’ve undoubtedly come face to face with No Child Left Behind. The legislation, reauthorized in 2001 as a continuation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, placed stringent requirements on states to make “adequate yearly progress,” as measured by standardized tests in math and reading. While the goal behind the legislation was to hold schools accountable for educating all students, there were numerous problems with the law: schools that failed to make AYP struggled with lack of funding, and many people questioned the focus on test-taking, rather than authentic learning.

In 2011, the Obama administration instituted a waiver policy that allowed states to opt out of the NCLB structure. The waiver requires that a state outline a clear plan for closing the achievement gap and creating educational equity, as well as outlining how schools will prepare all students for college and/or a career.

The most popular choice for meeting those opt-out requirements is to adopt the Common Core State Standards. According to the Common Core website, 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have already adopted these new standards in math and reading and are implementing them in the 2013-2014 school year.

Outline of the Standards
The standards are split into mathematics and English language arts. The math standards are divided by grades K-8, then split up according to the following sub-categories:

  • Number and quantity
  • Algebra
  • Functions
  • Modeling
  • Geometry
  • Statistics and Probability

Within English language arts, there are Anchor Standards outlining college and career readiness goals for reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language. Beyond that, standards for each grade K-12 are divided into the following domains:

  • Reading: Literature
  • Reading: Informational text
  • Reading: Foundational skills
  • Writing
  • Speaking and Listening
  • Language

An explanation of how to measure text complexity, examples of text types for elementary and secondary education, and information on how to stay on topic within a grade and across grades is also provided with the ELA standards.

One of the biggest complaints about NCLB has been that it puts so much emphasis on multiple-choice tests, consequently making educators “teach to the test.”  The CCSS are designed to address this problem, requiring “practical, real-life application of knowledge” in order to meet the standards.

In the math realm, the designers of the CCSS stated that “one hallmark of mathematical understanding is the ability to justify…why a particular mathematical standard is true or where a mathematical rule comes from.” Given this, educators are asked to teach in a way that encourages problem-solving and critical thinking skills, not just memorization or drill practice. Unlike NCLB, the CCSS do not define intervention methods or materials to be used in reaching this goal, but the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice provide a basis for instruction across grade levels.

The ELA standards are similarly broad in scope and define meeting the standard as having a complex understanding of literacy and literature. According to the Common Core website, a student who attains the standard practices attentive reading, critically picks through large amounts of text, and demonstrates communication skills that allow him or her to express language both creatively and purposefully.

Two state-led consortia, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), were awarded federal funding to create assessment systems aligned with the CCSS. Both groups are rolling out practice exams and performance tasks during the 2013-2014 school year, and schools can expect full implementation of the assessments during the 2014-2015 school year. More details on the two groups and their assessments will be provided in a separate article, but the focus for both consortia is to create assessments that ask students to problem-solve and apply their knowledge critically.

The CCSS are not without detractors. A few of the concerns and complaints associated with the standards are:

  1. We should be developing habits of mind rather than particular subject knowledge. While critical thinking can aid students in every discipline, categorizing student knowledge under headings such as “math” or “reading” suggests that we value discrete pieces of knowledge over thinking processes.
  2. The standards ignore the real problem in American education: poverty. Before we can improve our education system, we need to address this issue.
  3. It’s extremely difficult to design standardized tests that avoid cultural bias or assess complex thought.
  4. Cost: We’re spending taxpayer money on a system that some believe is only marginally better than the system we already have.

Time will tell whether the system is, indeed, better than what we had, as well as whether it better tests students’ critical thinking skills. This coming school year represents the first real gauge of how well the CCSS support teachers and students, so expect more discussion and contention over the new standards in the months to come.