Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Dream Come True or Nightmare to Come?

By: Ed Dickey

High stakes tests should assess what the public values from education, but they too often fall short of measuring the many and varied student learning outcomes that actually occur in classrooms. For example, in 1997, I coauthored a pair of articles (Dickey & Robyler, 1997, 1997–98) that documented how multiplechoice items on national and international high-stakes assessments are incapable of measuring the types of learning afforded by using technology. As a result, critics of technology integration would have and use data (albeit invalid) to claim that technology does not contribute to student achievement. Our argument was that the tests would show no impact of technology on student achievement scores because the items on those tests were not designed to measure the contributions of technology or the use of integrated curriculum. It is my hope and belief that now, finally, the types of tests that measure the complex learning that occurs when, for example, technology is meaningfully infused or integrative curriculum is implemented will soon be available and used throughout the United States. The adoption of the Common Core State Standards by nearly all states makes this dream a reality.

The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) are an evolutionary step that builds on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) 1989 and 2000 standards. Adoption of the CCSSM by so many states provides coherent and rigorous expectations for the nation and also affords the possibility of creating the high-quality tests needed to measure those standards. By broadening the testing pool to 50 million learners for two tests, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) have the economies of scale required to create new tests that validly assess the standards, which value conceptual understanding and the various processes and proficiencies, known as “practices,” critically important to learning mathematics.

The CCSSM for the middle grades build on a foundation from earlier grades, informed by current research on learning progressions in key concept areas of mathematics. For example, fractions are addressed in grades 3 through 5 using progressions that build on and extend learning based on unit fractions and number line representations (Wu, 2011). Fraction learning serves as a foundation for the algebraic thinking stream within grades 6–8 that includes the domains of the Number System and of Expressions & Equations as well as standards that address Ratios & Proportional Relationships, Geometry, Functions, and Statistics & Probability. Now grades 6–8 students and their teachers can benefit from lessons that blend skill development with essential understandings of concepts in ways that address the practices inherent to mathematics (see, e.g., Bush, Karp, Popelka, & Bennett, 2012). Also, students and teachers can be assured that the type of learning that integrates mathematics with other subjects, such as health education and cultural responsiveness, in the case of the lesson by Bush and associates (2012), will also be assessed through tests that align accurately to the content and practices. The test items under development by PARCC and SBAC, in many cases employing teachers as item writers and reviewers, are constructed to specifications that address student understanding and the mathematical practices stated in the standards. The released sample items, available at the consortia websites, provide a glimpse of the high-quality tests that will be implemented in 2014–2015.

Also important for the middle grades is that the CCSSM address a breadth of mathematics content through a unified set of standards, as opposed to the common practice of accelerating high school courses with their own separate standards (e.g., Algebra I) into the middle grades under the pretext of somehow making the curriculum more “rigorous.” The reality is that addressing geometry, statistics, proportional reasoning, and other subjects and concepts throughout the middle grades with carefully designed learning trajectories from elementary school through the middle grades and into high school creates a mathematical curriculum consistent with that of high-performing nations and better serving the development of students’ mathematical knowledge. Equally important is the reality that we now have schools throughout the country staffed by teachers who meet the Association for Middle Level Education, NCTM, and National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education licensure standards, ensuring their qualifications to enact the CCSSM in the middle grades classroom.

While I have offered my reasons for viewing the CCSSM as a dream come true, I acknowledge that many educators have different views and consider this movement to be more of a potential nightmare. Critics from across the philosophical and political spectrum express concerns and doubts about the standards; the accountability system developing around them; and the implications for students, teachers, and the entire education enterprise. (Editor’s note: See, for example, the commentary by Beane in this issue.) Some express concerns about federally imposed standards threatening the democratic, and traditionally local, authority for curriculum decisions. For others, a top-down education policy system imposed by leaders with no experience in education has the potential of undermining public education and assessing education and teacher quality solely or too narrowly on test results.

I, too, harbor concerns with certain aspects of how the standards are organized and how areas of emphasis are determined, including the role of technology for learning mathematics, but I remain hopeful that a mechanism will be in place to do, as has been done with the original NCTM standards, periodic revisions based on what we learn during implementation. Despite weaknesses and problems, I remain convinced that shared standards for mathematics across states and high-quality tests available nationwide will provide students, teachers, and parents with the type of mathematics education system that contributes to the advancements and competitiveness critical to our personal, professional, and collective success.


Bush, S. B., Karp, K. S., Popelka, L., & Bennett, V. M. (2012). What’s on your plate? Thinking proportionately. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 18(2), 100–107.
Common Core State Standards Initiative (2010). Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from http://www.
Dickey, E., & Robyler, M. D. (1997). Technology, NAEP, and TIMSS: How does technology influence our national and international report cards? (Part 1). Leading and Learning with Technology, 25(3), 55–57.
Dickey, E., & Robyler, M. D. (1997-98). Technology, NAEP, and TIMSS: How does technology influence our national and international report cards? (Part 2). Leading and Learning with Technology, 25(4), 48–51.
Wu, H. (2011). Phoenix rising: Bringing the Common Core State Mathematics Standards to life. American Educator, 35(3), 3–13.

Previously published in Middle School Journal, January 2013


2 comments on article "Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Dream Come True or Nightmare to Come?"

Common Core is providing many wonderful tools for teachers to use in their classrooms but it comes with some flaws. I think this article shows the pros and cons in a great way. I think Common Core has the potential to change education for the better. Putting emphasis on how things are learned rather than what is learned will have very positive effects on the nation. There are still some kinks to work out. For instance, I have talked to a few Exception Student Services Teachers about how Common Core will effect Exception Student and the consensus was that students who are receiving ESS may fall even further behind because of the rigor of Common Core. This may be a draw back to "upping the game."

10/10/2014 4:35 PM

I agree with Elizabeth, Common Core is provides different tools for teachers to use in there classrooms. Just like anything, there is flaws. Common Core allows teachers to monitor students' progress, multi-assess students, and tested among those certain standards. The cons, however, is the standards are broad. It's hard for each teacher to get used to these standards. I think Math needs it's own standards that are more specific. Math builds upon itself, so we need to be sure our students can improve rather than fall behind with these standards.

12/5/2016 1:55 PM

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