Common Core Math Expectations Are Only A Baseline

Published by — There’s surprisingly little controversy over the meaning of “college-ready math.”  Ready for which college?

We’re going to discuss Common Core today, so take a chill pill.  I’m not saying CC presents nothing to be upset about, but getting upset just clouds clear thinking.

CC is by no means perfect, but it’s not Evil incarnate, either.  So let’s get to know it.  Finding the good parts will remind us that we don’t really want to return to zero accountability, or 50 definitions of proficient, such as we got from No Child Left Behind, or continued stagnant progress in the country’s educational achievement.  Most importantly, if not, Common Core, what?

Conveniently, the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) wrote two one-pagers that describe “The Shifts” in thinking that are at the standards’ philosophical heart.  If you look at no other CC materials, read these.  Even for educators, digesting the standards themselves is a daunting task.  So before joining one of the inflamed bandwagons out there, get a bit of grounding in original documents.  Many CC controversies are bogus hysteria — such as the standards requiring limits on bathroom time — but some are very real.

Using The Shifts’ math page, let’s examine the frequent accusation that CC “dumbs down” math expectations, in part by notrequiring Algebra I until the 9th grade.  This is a legitimate concern since Algebra II is generally the gatekeeper to all but the least selective colleges.  Historically, schools found that only by pushing Alg I into middle school would it give struggling math students, often low-income minorities, plenty of time to repeat math classes and still reach the “college-ready math” benchmark.  Not an insignificant worry.  Let’s consider it:

The philosophical shifts for math are organized under “Focus,” “Coherence,” and “Rigor.”  The first shift is this:

The Standards call for a greater focus in mathematics.  Rather than racing to cover topics in a mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum, the Standards require us to significantly narrow and deepen the way time and energy is spent in the math classroom.  We focus deeply on the major work of each grade so that students can gain strong foundations:  solid conceptual understanding, a high degree of procedural skill and fluency, and the ability to apply the math they know to solve problems inside and outside the classroom.

Admit it:  that’s not so nuts.

So let’s make three points:

1.  CCSS are about the timing of testing skills. 

Despite opponents claiming otherwise, standards are NOT a curriculum.  CC offers “exemplar” curricula suggestions — some truly bad — but by all means, ignore them.  The standards only identify when particular skills will be assessed.  Algebra I concepts won’t be tested until the spring of 9th grade.

But no standard prevents schools from offering advanced math to any and all students, so talented kids absorb the sequence of math skill-building that ends with Calculus as fast as their clever heads let them.  Shame on schools that don’t push all their kids to their highest potential.  Kids on a fast track will ace those Algebra I skills by spring of 9th grade.

2.  The CCSS are only a bottom line, a minimum guarantee.

There’s surprisingly little controversy over the meaning of “college-ready math.”  Ready for which college?  Because they range from community colleges to the Ivies.  A recently published research report, “What does it really mean to be college and work ready?” addresses the issue directly.  The NCEE researchers found that at any given time, 45% of all American college students are attending community colleges.  The great majority of these students bomb basic skills tests, especially in math, and end up paying for remedial classes that do not get them closer to an actual degree or certificate.  The report argues that the math needed for most of the Associate’s degree programs, as well as passing the Accuplacer or other placement tests are solid 8th-grade skills with a smidge of Algebra I and Geometry.

Algebra II is usually the gatekeeper to college, and often a high-school graduation requirement.  So schools race through a bazillion topics without ensuring that all kids acquire at least a solid set of practical skills.  The lack of those skills is wrecking the academic careers of largely low-income students attending community colleges.

3.  Redefine “college-ready” math to ensure all kids get the basics. 

I am totally gung-ho for the training that Algebra II offers the mind, but not at the expense of setting up those community college kids for success — never mind winning back the hearts of students who give up high school altogether or any dreams of post-secondary training.  After all, the NCEE report found that only about 5% of jobs require the skills in Algebra II and above.  We might have to be more specific about which-college ready we mean.

Yes, the lack of Algebra II would likely keep students out of highly-selective Ivies, but frankly, the kids I’m concerned about weren’t going to Dartmouth, Vassar, or Reed anyway.  By all means intrigue, cajole and push the low-income, statistically-least-likely-to-succeed kids so some of them get over the hump and into selective colleges.

But are we “dumbing down” or recalibrating “college ready” so tons more students could be prepared for an accessible success?  Again, nothing is stopping schools from challenging the daylights out of the students who can handle it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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