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Common Core vs. Common Sense

Common Core standards are advanced standards.

I’ve written about that before. So what is the issue with it? On its face, it doesn’t seem as though there should be any. Don’t we want to provide the best opportunities for academic growth possible? To answer that, let’s look further at the content of Common Core.

According to its own document, found at, these standards were developed to prepare America’s K-12 students for “college and career readiness”, meaning that any student graduating high school should be ready to enter the work force with the requisite skills for success in our modern world. Setting aside the obvious rebuttal that this has always been the case, let’s examine CC's literacy overview, parsed as follows:

• Key ideas and details; • Craft and structure; • Integration of knowledge and ideas; • Range of reading and level of text complexity.

In second grade, under the heading Key Ideas, students must “ask and answer questions such as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.” They must also retell stories, including those from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, moral, or theme, as well as describe how characters respond to major events and challenges. This is second grade, and we're requiring students to understand the themes in literature and analyze character development.

Craft and Structure has to do with how a story is presented; second graders must “describe the overall structure of a story, including how the beginning introduces the story and how the ending concludes the action.” They must also analyze differing points of view among the characters, including how dialogue, dialect, and word choice affect them.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas means how students are processing the information they learn. This is tricky to assess because it requires us to look for evidence of how someone’s mind works. One way is to ask students to compare and contrast texts, a fairly high-level skill. Second graders must be able to do this for different versions of the same story, such as Cinderella stories written by different authors or shared from different cultures.

So far, what we can see from Common Core is that young children are required to analyze the abstract nature of literature. Is every second grader capable of thinking abstractly? Apparently some adults think so, but how many 7-year-olds do you know? Think about how they talk and how they view the world. Do any of them exhibit abstract reasoning? I suppose it helps if you have a grasp on what 'abstract reasoning' is, so here's an example:

Concrete idea: I am hungry. I need to eat something.

Abstract understanding: Whatever I eat will take away the empty feeling in my tummy, but if I eat potato chips, I might feel sick later. If I eat a ham sandwich, I won't.

Abstract thought involves ruminating on concrete ideas in order to make a mental judgment.

With guidance, second graders should move in this direction, and some of them will graduate to thinking abstractly on their own. But will they demonstrate it when push comes to shove? Early abstract thought takes perseverance and persistence.

How many young children possess these qualities? Adult interaction is required to foster them, another reason to increase the adult:child ratio in our elementary schools.

To demonstrate grade-level Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity, second graders must “read independently and comprehend stories and poetry in the 2-3 text complexity band proficiently.” 2-3 means second and third grade, so Common Core does require giving all students advanced reading material, with “scaffolding [assistance] as needed at the high end of the range.” With one teacher in a classroom of 30 second graders, how much 'scaffolding' do you think happens, typically? Probably not a lot. Providing access to advanced material should be occurring in all our classrooms; requiring mastery of it to be considered a grade-level reader, however, is misleading.

It may seem like a good idea to push all students toward literary mastery at an early age. The reality, though, is that many children are pushing back. Learning this way requires ushering child brains more quickly through their developmental stages. It's hard work for both the adults and the students, and it is stymied by the fact that only the adults are held accountable for success.

What CC reading material should be used for is to separate children into ability groups. Everyone's needs will be better met, and students will learn early that if they want to excel, they'll need to push themselves.

So what does a typical Common Core text for second grade look like? Here’s an example from the Spectrum series of workbooks, a popular choice of supplemental material that a lot of teachers use:

Look at the word choices (nervous, excellent, worried) and the sentence structure (…he almost poured milk into his orange juice instead of into his cereal bowl). Notice the figurative language (others look light, as if they are hanging in the air; tons of great bridge ideas). This is second grade material in its brevity only. Everything else about it screams advanced: advanced word choices, advanced sentences, advanced language concept. Is it wrong to require this of students? That depends on the importance we place on skill acquisition and how we handle non-acquisition.

Now let's talk about College and Career Readiness: what does that mean? According to the State Standards Initiative, it means graduates of a K-12 program can do the following:

Demonstrate independence, • Build strong content knowledge, • Respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline, • Comprehend as well as critique, • Value evidence, • Use technology and digital media strategically and capably, and Come to understand perspectives and cultures.

The theory is that when we establish the need for these concepts early (such as in second grade), students will continue to respond earnestly to the expectation to work hard, learn deeply, and achieve mastery. But does this actually happen?

Common Core has been the adopted curriculum in many states for nearly a decade, and their state assessments have been written to assess this advanced material. This means that only a student displaying advanced achievement will pass Colorado’s Measures of Academic Success (CMAS). When the public sees the statistic that only 40% of third graders passed the CMAS reading test in 2022*, they are likely to assume that third graders just cannot read well. But is that really the case? Here's a question from a third grade reading test:

If you are taking this test, what would you likely do? Go back to the passage and hunt for the word 'plunging' to see how it is used in context? Yes, you should, if you want to make sure your thinking is correct. Those third graders who do that are displaying persistence in their work. How many will do that on their own, without an adult pushing them? With Common Core, it often seems like we are assessing a child's ability to work independently more than we are assessing the skills themselves. Is that a fair matrix on which to rate grade-level reading?

Many questions on CC tests include multiple parts, such as this one. But if a student does not get Part A correct, what hope does he have for Part B?

It's not possible to analyze the advisability of Common Core without also analyzing the testing that has been created to assess it. End-of-year standardized testing is never just one test. It is a battery of tests, usually including three to five sessions for children in grades three through eight.

According to this table, third graders were put through four and a half hours of testing at year-end to determine their reading ability.

Success depends on how much the child is able or willing to focus on his computer screen for the duration of the test. He is not able to ask the adult monitoring him any questions, including how to navigate the test. In contrast, he has been able to ask questions about anything during his classroom instruction, and often, bounce ideas off a group of learners. The only way a child is going to fare well in a solo testing environment like this is if he possesses a high degree of confidence and perseverance, and the willingness to do it all on a computer.

And now we come full circle. What is wrong with instituting advanced standards?

Well, there are no repercussions for students if they miss the mark. We're raising the bar on concept acquisition without offering incentive to students to work even harder than before.

Why are we requiring students to learn faster and deeper

without holding them accountable for their learning?

Who is going to give his best on a test that takes multiple sessions of arduous solo work? No adult I know would do that without a substantial incentive, such as advancement in salary or career. But we’re asking elementary students to do it.

If a child knows his results will determine his class placement, he might be more motivated to give his best. And even if he isn’t, that alone helps educators determine the best learning environment for him.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. It is impossible to adequately address learning standards without also addressing testing, which leads to how we handle testing outcomes and if that affects how we place children in classrooms, which then leads to who is teaching what and which students, which also brings up class size and adult to child ratio….

Chaos reigns in our schools because certain elements of success are not up for discussion. By instituting advanced standards while ignoring everything else about learning, the most significant outcome of Common Core is a high degree of frustration...

...for everyone except the power structure, which seems to enjoy its position of instituting mandates without the inconvenience of dealing with them personally or analyzing them realistically.

There’s something very wrong with this picture.

*Even prior to COVID, the results of CMAS were not reassuring: 41% of third graders passed the reading test in 2019.


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