Quick Guide: Understanding the Common Core State Standards in California

August 25, 2017

The Common Core State Standards in English language arts stress literacy skills across all subject areas.

Although the State Board of Education adopted new Common Core standards in math and English language arts nearly seven years ago, some school districts are still in the process of implementing them.

Forty-one other states around the country have also adopted the standards, which were created to help U.S. students compete with high school graduates from around the world for 21st Century jobs.

Tests of California students show progress has been made over the past two years, but an achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers remains, along with gaps between higher-scoring Asian and white students and lower-scoring African-American and Latino classmates.

The new standards emphasize critical thinking and class discussions about concepts, instead of passive lectures by teachers and multiple-choice tests.

This FAQ explains the new standards, while also touching on the national controversy that continues to swirl around them based on fears that the federal government has pushed the standards on states and concerns over the use of test scores in teacher evaluations outside California, among other reasons.

What are the Common Core State Standards in California?

Common Core math and English language arts standards explain what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade level, from kindergarten through 12th grade. They are not the same as a curriculum, which tells educators how to teach the standards.

Each district and school can choose its own curriculum to meet the goals of the standards. However, the state has adopted “frameworks” – which are like blueprints – that explain how to teach them in California.

The state has also adopted lists of recommended curriculum materials for grades K-8 in math and English language arts, including materials for English language learners.

What is different about English language arts standards in California under the Common Core compared to the previous standards? 

California’s previous state standards in English language arts stressed more fiction than the Common Core standards, which require students to analyze and compare nonfiction texts to prepare them for college and 21st century careers that require critical thinking and math expertise, such as computer programmers and other technology-related fields. The new standards are considered more rigorous and require students to think critically and use evidence to support their positions. They also stress literacy across all subject-areas, emphasizing reading, writing and speaking. 

And because 21.4 percent of California students come to school speaking languages other than English, the state has adopted English Language Development standards that require teachers of every subject  from science to physical education  to stress academic vocabulary and class discussions to help English learners become fluent more quickly.

What is different about math standards in California under the Common Core?

The math standards are divided into two sections – one for subject content to be taught at each grade level and one for skills and techniques used to solve problems, called “Standards for Mathematical Practice.” The new standards show that there can be many ways to solve a problem and encourage students to explain how they figure out their answers.

The content standards include concepts such as counting, addition, multiplication, fractions and algebra, with an emphasis on understanding how math works instead of merely memorizing math facts or formulas.

The eight practice standards stress skills such as working at a problem until you get it right and tools such as diagrams,  tables, graphs, charts and formulas that students use to solve problems. These standards are the same at every grade level, but they build on each other from year to year.

Can the federal government repeal the Common Core standards?

No. They are state standards. The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, prohibits the federal government from dictating or controlling a state, district or school’s “instructional content, academic standards and assessments, curricula, or program of instruction….”

The federal law, known as ESSA, requires states to adopt rigorous standards, but allows states to decide what those standards should be.

Are the Common Core standards being implemented in all California schools? Is it mandatory for schools to use the standards to guide instruction? 

Local school boards have the discretion to adopt the standards and curriculum they believe best meet their students’ needs. So, while it is not mandatory for schools to use the Common Core standards to guide instruction under California law, the state strongly recommends that schools use them and expects all public schools and districts to implement them, including charter schools. However, it does not track whether or not they do.

State law requires all schools to teach English – including literature and English speaking, reading, listening, spelling, handwriting and composition. California law also requires schools to teach mathematics – including concepts, operations, and problem-solving.

In addition, the state requires all public schools – including charters – to create Local Control and Accountability Plans that show how they are addressing priorities established by the State Board of Education, which include implementing the Common Core standards. Private schools are not required to use the Common Core standards or to create accountability plans. But a spokesperson for the California Department of Education says it encourages private schools to teach to Common Core standards.

How do California schools test students on the standards?

Schools are required to administer math and English language arts tests created by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, to students in grades 3-8 and 11 each year. These tests are aligned to the Common Core standards and are computer-based. However, parents may choose to opt their children out of the tests. Last year, less than 1 percent of the nearly 3.2 million California students eligible to take the tests opted out of them. 

All California public school students in grades 3-8 and 11 are expected to take the Smarter Balanced tests or California Alternative Assessments unless their parents opt them out.

Smarter Balanced provides accessibility tools to enable students who are not fluent in English or who have some physical disabilities to take the tests. Also, the state is developing an optional Spanish Assessment that it expects to pilot in the fall of 2017 to assess students’ proficiency in reading, writing and listening in Spanish. That applies to students whose native language is Spanish and students who are learning Spanish. Some students with significant cognitive disabilities can take the California Alternative Assessment.

The state reports test results for schools, districts and counties on its public website. Parents receive individual student score reports in the mail.

The Smarter Balanced tests are part of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASSP) System, which also includes science tests.

What other standards are guiding instruction in California schools?

Besides the Common Core math and English language arts standards, the state Board of Education has adopted standards related to the following subject areas: English Language Development for English learners, Career Technical Education, Health Education, History-Social Science, Next Generation Science Standards, and Physical Education. It has also adopted Model School Library Standards.

In addition, the state is revising its Visual and Performing Arts standards and is developing standards for Computer Science and World Language.

How much support for the Common Core has there been in California? And how much opposition? 

Although opposition to the Common Core has been strong in some other states where high stakes are tied to test results – such as teacher evaluations and whether to retain students in their grade levels   Californians have largely supported the new standards. The state adopted the standards in 2010 and many districts began transitioning to them in 2013-14, when the state piloted new Common Core-aligned tests. Most districts were expected to have implemented them by 2014-15, when the Smarter Balanced tests were first administered.

In 2014, more than 300 California business, nonprofit and children’s groups signed a statement supporting the Common Core State Standards.

In 2015, while a nationwide poll showed a majority of respondents opposed the standards, two California polls showed residents in this state favored the new math and English language arts standards.

And again in 2016, Californians showed greater support for the standards than other U.S. residents polled nationwide.

By 2017, when an anti-Common Core administration led by newly elected President Donald Trump took office, many education leaders from throughout California said the standards are here to stay. They said Californians support the state’s efforts to better prepare students for college and 21st Century careers.

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