Explainer: Coming Up to Speed on the Common Core State Standards

Just mentioning ‘Common Core’ is a good way to provoke an argument, but what’s behind all the anxiety?

The standards first born decades ago are now causing all kinds of angst and agita in New Jersey and elsewhere.

What they are: The Common Core State Standards are a set of academic standards in language arts and math that have been adopted in more than 40 states and intended to be the guideposts for children from kindergarten through 12th grade to ensure that they are ready for college and employment.

What they mean: The Common Core has many goals, including raising the rigor of academic standards and increasing the depth of learning. And with 43 states and the District of Columbia signed on, it provides a single metric to help compare states’ achievement levels against one another.

What’s the big deal? The standards enjoyed a pretty easy launch four years ago, when New Jersey was among four-dozen states to embrace the notion of stronger and deeper academics. But as they have been rolled out and phased in to schools — and new state tests have been developed — concerns and criticism have arisen from both the right and the left.

A little history: The Common Core is an outgrowth of the “standards and assessment” movement that actually started under President George H. W. Bush. The standards continued to evolve through President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, and President Barack Obama, ultimately being released in 2010, as defined by a confederation of states, education groups, and business leaders under the umbrella of the nonprofit group Achieve. They then got a big boost with President Obama’s Race to the Top grant competition starting in 2010 that all but required adoption, leading to New Jersey joining the list.

What they do: The standards only set the endgame of instruction, not the actual curriculum, but they definitely change how schools teach students in different grades, including more depth in specific topics and often earlier in a child’s school career.

For example: Students in all grades — including elementary school — are being asked to write based on informational texts, using evidence and research. In math, numeric operations and fractions are the focus of elementary and middle schools, while it isn’t until high school where algebra is taught in depth.

All about the testing: Any discussion of the Common Core is incomplete without discussion of its biggest impact, the new state tests. And that has been where most of the debate has arisen. The standards are the basis of New Jersey’s new tests starting in the spring, known by the acronym of the group that developed them, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). New Jersey is one of 17 states participating in the PARCC tests, which are administered online. Twenty-two states have adopted a parallel test also aligned to the standards, known as Smarter Balanced.

Who’s for and against: Much of the education establishment and the business community, including the state’s chamber of commerce, have strongly backed the new standards. The state’s largest teachers unions, including the New Jersey Education Association, have also been among the supporters. But with the advent of the new tests, the teachers unions has softened their support, especially since the tests affect teacher evaluations under the state‘s new tenure law. And opposition has surfaced from both the conservative and liberal camps that see the new standards and tests as a top-down incursion on instruction.

New Jersey not alone: Backlash has been so strong elsewhere that a half-dozen states have either backed out of adoption or threatened to do so. New Jersey thus far is not among them, with the Christie administration and the State Board of Education still strongly in favor.

What’s next: The PARCC tests start in earnest next spring, a pivotal juncture to determine how New Jersey students rank against not just other states but the state’s own track record. State officials have warned that there is likely to be some dropoff in achievement levels, although they stressed that the state’s phase-in of the new standards should ease the transition.

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