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The State of the Common Core

Vanessa Vega

Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research
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Millions of teachers and thousands of districts in 45 states are currently undergoing a sea change in the way that they teach and assess students. The new Common Core Standards for learning have been phased into states and districts since 2010, and the digitized Common Core Assessments are scheduled to deploy in states that have adopted them as early as the 2014-2015 school year.

Map of State Adoption of Common Core Assessments (Oct. 2013)

Comparing Methods

Six consortia, funded by the U.S. Department of Education are developing systems for testing students' understanding of the Common Core standards. Two of these are developing assessments for English-language learners, which include English proficiency tests, and another two are developing assessments for students with the most significant cognitive impairments. The two largest consortia are Smarter Balanced and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC). Both use interim tests to inform instruction, and both use writing and problem-solving tasks to assess critical thinking. A key difference between PARCC and Smarter Balanced is that PARCC uses a fixed format that shows the same questions to all students. The Smarter Balanced test is adaptive, using an algorithm to adjust the difficulty of questions according to students' responses -- as students get more correct responses, the questions get harder.

Total testing time for Smarter Balanced is 55 hours over several multi-day testing sessions in grades 3-8 and grade 11. PARCC's total testing time is about 84.3 hours over 81 testing sessions in grades 3-11. Sample tasks for PARCC and Smarter Balanced can be found online. The table below provides further comparisons and links to the sample items.

  Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) Smarter Balanced ACT
Total testing time (per student, over all years) 84.3 hours in 81 separate testing sessions 55 hours, over several multi-day testing sessions --
Grades Tested Grades 3-11 Grades 3-8 and 11 Grades 3-10
Cost* $29.50 per pupil $22.50 per pupil $20 per pupil
Number of Adopting States** 17 (incl. 5 states adopting both PARCC and Smarter Balanced) 23 (incl. 5 states adopting both PARCC and Smarter Balanced) 1
Tech Requirements •1 device per student for the 2 largest grades in K-8 schools
•1 device per student for the largest grade in K-5, 6-8 or 9-12 schools
•Paper-and-pencil version as accommodation or state approval in 2014-15
•8:1 student-to-computer ratio will process all students in 3-7 week assessment window
•Paper-and-pencil version as accommodation and for 3 years for schools not available for delivery
•Online and paper-and-pencil versions
Format •Fixed-form delivery (several equated sets of items and tasks)
•Locally-scored speaking and listening assessment
•Interim assessments
•See ELA Sample Items
•See Math Sample Items
•Adaptive delivery
•Interim assessments
•See ELA sample items
•See Math Sample items
•Constructed response, multiple-choice, and technology-enhanced items •Interim assessments
•See ACT Aspire Sample items (sign-in required)

Source: Center for K-12 Assessment & Performance Management at ETS (2013)1, and ACT, Inc. (2013). *All three tests cost less than 1 percent of national average annual per pupil spending, which is $10,600. **Approximate, as of October 2013.

The Road Ahead for Assessment

The Educational Testing Service has analyzed scenarios in which a multitude of tests claim to measure the Common Core standards. In the worst case, it will not be possible to compare scores across tests, and in the best case, formulas can be used to translate scores from one test to another (not unlike translating scores between the ACT and SAT). Comparability metrics could only be understood through cooperation, communication and transparency between test providers.2

Despite states' disagreement over tests, the number of states using common tests will be greater than ever before in U.S. history, and never before have K-12 tests been fully digitized. Thousands of schools will need to purchase computers and broadband Internet networks. Recent field-testing of PARCC and Smarter Balanced digital assessment reports indicate that schools which are relatively well equipped -- with wireless computers, broadband Internet and IT staff -- needed additional time and expertise for extensive troubleshooting. Glitches ranged from software and wireless device compatibility issues to the actual testing software. Tech-savvy schools that participated in field testing also report that digital assessments assume a level of digital fluency (such as familiarity with keyboard layout and using a mouse to select text), which will affect students who do not have regular access to digital tools.3

The New York Case Study

New York has been a model in providing supports for transitioning to Common Core, yet principals and teachers there have described the implementation as "rushed" and lacking in resources.4 One teacher said, "We were not given curriculum, and told this is what you guys are going to do. They just told us, 'This is the expectation, you figure it out.'"5 In order for the more rigorous Common Core Standards to deliver on the promise of engaging the vast majority of American students in more productive learning experiences, teachers and schools need support in the form of Common Core-aligned curricular resources, teacher and principal training, and computers and broadband Internet.6 Free Common Core-aligned curricular resources could also save states tens of millions of dollars.7 Finally, eliminating punitive outcomes for high-stakes tests would alleviate the stress of unknown outcomes during the transition.8

Early results from testing the Common Core Standards in New York and Kentucky indicate that the majority of students are not yet on track for college and career readiness. Supporting students and teachers in achieving challenging goals will take time and resources.

Learning More About Common Core Implementation

The benefit of more rigorous common standards depends on sharing resources and collaborating to engage students in deeper learning. Below are a few of the free resources and communities that are available to support Common Core implementation:

  • Engage New York provides Common Core-aligned lessons and videos.
  • Share My Lesson provides free Common Core-aligned lessons for ELA and Math, vetted and supported by the American Federation of Teachers.
  • The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education describes how Common Core Standards can be combined with career-based learning to support high-quality, relevant 21st century instruction.
  • The National Parent Teacher Association provides grade-level guides in ELA and math to keep parents informed and engaged.
  • The Council of Great City Schools has created "parent roadmaps" that provide grade-level guides to Common Core Standards in ELA and Math.
  • The Teaching Channel provides videos showing Common Core-aligned lessons.

Edutopia also provides several resources for supporting Common Core implementation:

Please also check out our Common Core in Action blog series for more innovative ideas to bring Common Core into the classroom.


1Center for K-12 Assessment & Performance Management at ETS (2013). Coming Together to Raise Achievement New Assessments for the Common Core State Standards
2Educational Testing Service (2010). Thoughts on an assessment of Common Core assessments
3T.H.E Journal (August 6, 2013). Getting Your School Tech Ready for Common Core Assessments
4School Improvement Network, Education Update (2011). Common Core State Standards Elementary School
5PBS News Hour Report (August 13, 2013). In Defining What Public School Students Should Know, Teachers Wonder "How?"
6Center on Education Policy (2013). Year 3 of Implementing the Common Core State Standards: State Education Agencies' Views on the Federal Role
7Arizona Department of Education (2013). Estimated Costs of Common Core Implementation (FY 2014)
8Darling-Hammond, L., American School Board Journal (2013). "A New Vision for Accountability"

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Vanessa Vega

Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mike Blumenstein's picture

This is great for Summative assessments, but what about getting students ready to take these tests, in the form of Formative assessments tied to the common core. Multiple small assessments during the day, every day help to drive better communication with the students, they are responsible for their own mastery, and they are used to taking assessments.. these summative tests will be a walk in the park.

Heck, if you can make it FUN at the same time, think about the impact that will make. Contact me if you want to learn more. :)

Vanessa Vega's picture
Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research

Absolutely agree with you that formative assessment is at the heart of teaching. My favorite examples of ways to understand what students understand to support their learning throughout the process (as opposed to only at the end) are these 13 practical examples from Grant Wiggins, and, and this treasure trove of examples,, from Edutopia Community contributor David Wees.

Theo Dawson's picture
Theo Dawson
Executive Director of Lectica, Inc.

We need to question our assumptions about testing. If we developed enough little formative assessments in every subject area and calibrated them to the same learning scale, we would not need summative assessments. The portfolio of assessment results would be the summary. And these little assessments could be calibrated to more than a common scale--every score would point to what a given student is likely to benefit from learning next, so everyone could be learning in his or her "Goldilocks Zone". We'd recruit the natural learning cycle, and leverage student's natural love of learning. The methods and technology are already here!

Barry Hillman's picture
Barry Hillman
Director, HealthLitNow

I believe Formative Assessment tied to Common Core can be much more powerful than it is often credited. A number of researchers have underscored the importance of formative assessment as a distinction between assessment for learning, where design and use centers on promoting student learning, and assessment of learning, where the design and use serve the purposes of accountability, such as ranking and certification.
But, it is the assessment OF learning that can take on the important aspect of being Dynamic. Our group has been promoting the use of handheld whiteboards for this reason. Their use becomes what we refer to as "Dynamic Formative Assessment" where the feedback is used to immediately impact learning, not accountability. The other factor is how well the teacher can use the information and make decisions and modifications to the immediate instruction as well as longer term planning.

As Mike says...make it FUN! Besides providing Dynamic Formative Assessment, handheld whiteboards are fun and can be linked to digital materials through QR codes. Please contact me also if you would like to learn more.

Paul B's picture

My concern is how common core affects the special education population. Many students who receive special education services are not performing at grade level due to various disabilities, yet common core requires these same students to master the same grade level benchmarks as those of their non-disabled peers. On average, special needs students require an additional 30-40 days of instruction to learn and master the same material as their nondisabled peers, leaving special educators and other stakeholders concerned about the unrealistic expectations being placed on the special education population. Furthermore, because of their physical and cognitive impairments, many special needs students use specifically designed assistive technology to access their curriculum. Although students have individualized assistive technology resources to access learning, these specifically designed resources are not allowed during tests aligned to common core. The inability of students being able to use their own assistive technology during tests aligned to common core with result in inaccurate test scores. Because testing aligned to common core is so "high stakes", is this really the instance where accessibility should be taken away from the special education population?

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