Jessica Keigan, a teacher at Horizon High School in Thornton, Colorado, knows there will be big changes in the way she and her colleagues teach reading and math. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and all they bring—more rigorous content, new training, and new student assessments—are being rolled out across the country, creating an understandably high level of anticipation and anxiety. But Keigan, who is in her 10th year as an English teacher, is a self-described “optimist.”

“I feel the anxiety, too,” Keigan says. “These changes are overwhelming. But I have to tell you, I’ve had the most constructive, in-depth discussions with my colleagues about what we teach, how we teach, and how we should be assessing student learning—the best meetings I’ve had since I’ve been a teacher by a mile.”

Forty-five states have adopted the CCSS, which means for the first time there will be consistency among states in what students should know and be able to accomplish in the two core subject areas of English language arts and math. The purpose of the CCSS is to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, no matter where they live, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.  (The National Education Association was one of many teacher groups that partnered the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers as they developed the standards. Find out more about NEA’s work with the Common Core.)

The higher learning that is required by Common Core isn’t compatible with the narrow, standardized multiple-choice tests that increased exponentially after No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law in January 2002. As a result, assessment systems will change, too.

“The new standards are bringing not only new rigor and creativity to teaching but also to assessments,” Keigan explains. “Our previous standards were vague, were little more than laundry lists, and [were] very hard to assess properly. I believe the Common Core standards are opening the door to something better.”

Fear of the Unknown

But what exactly is behind the door? While the days of bubble tests may be numbered and student assessments are being remapped to the Common Core, the design and implementation of these new exams is still largely a work in progress, despite the expectation that they will be implemented for the 2014 – 2015 school year.

Teachers may be relieved that dreaded multiple choice tests are being scuttled in favor of open-ended items that require more creativity and critical thinking on the part of the student. For many teachers, however, the implementation of the CCSS also means more of the same. According to a 2012 survey by the Northwest Evaluation Association, while 62 percent of administrators say they expect Common Core assessments will be “extremely” or “very” useful to their work, only 33 percent of teachers shared this sentiment. More than one in five teachers said these assessments will be “not very” or “not at all” useful. The report noted, however, that many respondents were probably projecting their distaste for NCLB-like summative assessments onto the Common Core.

Many teachers also believe the new systems will fix blame and disqualify teachers, instead of focusing on student growth. Other concerns include a nagging sense that the CCSS is just a fad, and that after the dust settles, the nation’s schools will soon be required to move onto the “next big thing.” All the arduous training will then be rendered more or less obsolete after a few years. In addition, many schools feel unprepared from a technical standpoint to administer new tests that will be delivered via computer.


Keigan and other educators stress that, despite a pervasive fear of the unknown, teachers can and are playing a proactive role in helping shape CCSS implementation and these new assessments so that they work better for students.

“Like everything else in education, teacher buy-in is essential, as is buy-in from parents and the community,” Keigan says. “All stakeholders have to believe that these assessments will be better and actually tell us something meaningful about student learning.”

The Next Generation of Assessments

Most education stakeholders say they’re not against all standardized tests but resent the many hours their students spend filling in multiple-choice bubbles and the wide-ranging consequence that poor scores can carry. An added frustration is a lack of clarity on what these tests are designed to measure. Often, the tests aren’t aligned to the curriculum or instruction and results aren’t provided in enough time to supply useful information for educators or students.

The National Education Association believes well-designed assessment systems do have a critical role in student success, but that schools should use assessments to help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and help teachers improve their practice and provide extra help to the students who need it.

“The overuse of standardized tests for high-stakes decisions has shortchanged students, teachers, and our education system in too many ways for far too long,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “We’ve lost sight of the reason tests were designed: to help gauge students’ comprehension and progress.”

To that end, teachers must have the ability and opportunity to help design curriculum and lessons tied to the Common Core, and be able share their expertise in developing new assessment systems that make sense to students, parents, educators, and communities.

In 2010, two consortia of states were awarded federal Race-to-the-Top money to develop a new set of assessments that will be tied to the Common Core standards scheduled for implementation during the 2014 – 2015 school year. Both groups—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—plan to administer these new exams primarily on computers, and both aim to minimize multiple-choice questions in favor of open-ended problems requiring creativity and critical thinking. Both groups also plan to develop materials for teachers to show how the material on the assessments can be taught over the course of the school year, and they will create items that can be used formatively in classrooms. The PARCC consortium consists of 23 states, and the Virgin Islands. Twenty-seven states belong to SBAC.

Although tests won’t be ready for another 18 months, Common Core state standards are already being implemented, which leaves teachers in a bit of a lurch. In addition, states are scrambling to get up to speed on the technology that is required to administer the exams, including computers that have at least 1 gigabyte of computer memory, a screen display size of 9.5 inches or greater, and access to the Internet—specifications issued by PARCC.

Yet, teachers are slowly and steadily getting more information on how the new tests may look. In August, the PARCC consortia released a preview of sample test items.

Chuck Pack, a math teacher in Tahlequah, Oklahoma was encouraged that the new assessments will facilitate a deeper, more rigorous treatment of the curriculum.

He explains that the questions will push educators to teach at a higher level because many of the questions address multiple subjects at once. In the past, topics were taught in a vacuum and questions only tested one standard at a time.

“We’re talking about some fairly rigorous questions,” Pack says. “Students are going to be challenged, but in a way that is truly relevant to what they should be learning. This is a big change for my state and probably the country.”

Still, Pack concedes that “the process is going slower than what educators would like.”

As a teacher-leader for PARCC, Pack communicates with educators across the state to help them gain a better understanding of the consortium’s work and the inevitable effect it will have on their classrooms.

Pack acknowledges that the potential power of the new assessments could be squandered unless teachers have the training to use assessment data effectively and teach in ways that will lead to higher student achievement.

The professional development related to the standards can be addressed partly through the involvement of teachers in the determination of curriculum and new assessments. If they are to succeed in teaching students to achieve the standards, teachers also need opportunities to share ideas as they examine student work and responses on assessments.

Jessica Keigan is a member of the Colorado Content Collaborative. Created by the Colorado Department of Education, the collaborative is a way for educators to become involved with state and national experts in the creation and establishment of first-rate resources so that all Colorado educators have the latest and most effective tools and professional development.

One of the assigned tasks for the 75 educators selected in early 2012 was to determine whether assessments were fair, valid, and reliable measures of student learning. They were also tasked with building out an “assessment resource bank.”

Keigan is a passionate advocate for strong teacher voices in any “reform” process.

“The best model for setting and implementing policy is one where those who spend the most time in direct contact with students have the most say,” Keigan says. “I think we’re moving from a top-down approach to education reform, particularly as it relates to these new standards and assessments. In Colorado, things are in a state of flux, but I’m very hopeful.”

“It’s not as if the process isn’t messy, because it is,” Chuck Pack says. “There are serious time constraints and training for teachers has to be ramped up. But at the end of the day, teachers are going to find that their classes are more creative, and they will have greater flexibility as educators. Most important of all, the nation is going to have better students.”

NEA In Action
In December, the Helmsley Charitable Trusts announced that it would be making a three-year $11 million investment to help provide teachers with the resources and tools they need to make the transition to the Common Core State Standards work for their students. The Trust will be working with the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers to jointly design and develop tools and digital applications to support teachers in their practice. The investment will reinforce the unions’ ongoing efforts to support teachers as they incorporate the major shifts required by the new standards. “NEA believes the Common Core State Standards will help promote flexible, rich instruction and sound assessments that support learning for students. We are pleased that the Helmsley Trust sees the value and opportunity for all students in Common Core and understands the importance of supporting teachers through the adjustment and transition,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

  • Felak

    Well, I’m glad NEA at least put their bias right out there.

    I teach English at a nonpublic special-ed school for adolescent boys with emotional disabilities. This fall, I attended a Common Core training hosted by our school. Before attending, I was required to print out about 500 pages of materials related to CCSS and the new assessments. At the end was a document about meeting the needs of students with disabilities. “Oh good,” I thought. “This is what I need, how to make this work for my guys.”

    It was one-and-a-half pages long and contained nothing constructive beyond the usual vague mumblings about how the tests would be accessible to students with disabilities and with accommodations built in. How, exactly, that would be accomplished … well, your guess is as good as mine. When the question about students with disabilities was asked at the training itself, we were given a lot of feel-good bunk about how believing in our students would magically erase the fact that I have boys who can’t sit in a classroom for 45 minutes and will throw their work on the floor the minute they encounter a question they can’t answer and yet are supposed to pass these tests.

    I attended a second training where the only examples given for how the test would work for students with disabilities used students with visual impairments as the example. With all due respect to the challenges faced by the vision-impaired, making text bigger or changing the screen contrast is a lot easier than dealing with the tangle of emotional, behavioral, and learning disabilities that my students present.

    Unfortunately, I have to conclude that this whole idea hasn’t been thought through fully and we are going to end up sidelining our most vulnerable students.

  • Chuck Braden

    Having been in education for 36 years as a teacher and administrator, I find it very difficult to believe this is not another fad that will come and go with time. From past experience, once implemented, these “new” and “better” ways seem to have approximately a seven year shelf life. This means that an individual coming into education today will probably have to re-invent the wheel four to five times during their career. How sad? It sounds like I am not open to change or new ideas. On the contrary, I am probably one of the most receptive personwhen it comes to change. However, with all of the the demands on educating the student, requirements of the state and federal governments, in many cases “raising” the student, the challenges of technology in the classroom, and trying to be an entertainer to compete with what students are exposed to today, tomorrow’s teacher will have to almost be super human! It would be awsome if the majority of the individuals that make all of these decesions would have been in the teaching trenches for a good length of time. I really feel their outlook would change on how things could and should be done to help create a better learning outcome.

  • I agree with Felak. I am also a special education teacher with very similar students and the only answer I received was that everyone would have to realize that not all students will receive a high school diploma.

  • Ellen

    NEA has sold out to corporate interests. They have sold out the teachers they are supposed to represent, and the students they purport to serve. They have betrayed the trust of parents. I am disgusted.

  • Tony

    After reading Felak’s and Rose Ann’s posts, it is good to hear that other teachers have the same concerns I have. I am a special ed. teacher at a small public high school and have been asked by multiple regular ed. teachers what this will mean for students with disabilities. I never know what to tell them and the more I search the more I am realizing no one knows. Telling me some students just won’t get a high school diploma is unacceptable.

  • Kathy Blackwell

    I would like to construct a well thought out answer to post here, but unfortunately I have to finish my report cards, prepare materials for tomorrow, add to my teacher evaluation folders, etc etc…so I will have to let this go, as I have to let so many worthwhile things in my life go these days, one of the largest being creativity and fun in my teaching. I am so tired, I have no life at all and I hate it. I am telling all the young people I know not to go into this field, which I have been in for 34 years. Very very sad….

  • Paul Chavez

    Please read Diane Ravitch’s blogging (below links) about the costs and disaster that is the “common core:. Dennis and NEA leadership: exactly when did you sell your souls to the technology and corporate monsters that are destroying public education in America?!?

  • Joe Shepard

    The common core curriculum is a large first step to standardization of learning. From there, it is a very small step to indoctrination, with the government deciding what will be taught, taking away the ability of the classroom teacher to provide instruction in areas of significance. The teacher in the classroom knows far better than some bureaucrat what their students need to know. A shorter answer is this–its a step toward socialism. Don’t forget–whoever controls the vocabulary controls how people think.

  • This Common Core Curriculum will not improve education, nor will it improve student learning. Let our teachers teach! I am a Speech Pathologist in the public schools, but I see my colleagues in the general classroom work so hard….only to have the rules changed on them once again! This is yet another reason why we need vouchers for education. It is time for the monopoly on education to stop. I love my job and I love my students and colleagues. My colleagues work as hard and diligently as anyone I know. However, if the public school system does not quit trying to re-invent the wheel just so that a bunch of bureaucrats can stay relevant and keep their jobs, private schools, charter schools and home schools will continue to grow. I say more power to them. The NEA should NOT be supporting the Common Core Curriculum!

  • Ophelia

    It is wonderful that I won’t have to reinvent the wheel and develop materials every year I change grades as a teacher. However, children are not standardized they way machines are. The woman cited in the article has been teaching for ten years. I’d like to know if she has taught in multiple geographical locations with varying populations of students.
    There are so many factors for which the Common Core State Standards will not be able to address any differently than a good school/teacher is doing now. For populations of students who don’t fit the ‘mold’, new standards won’t address their needs any better than that which a great teacher who understands those students is already doing. Unfortunately, Charter Schools have been the ‘answer’ for many of these disadvantaged groups yet research demonstrates there is no more growth over time than the public schools accomplished prior to the grand opening of these ‘miracle schools’.
    And then there is the teacher evaluation piece! Tying evaluations to student performance is a mistake for which Union members will suffer greatly. Test scores will go down and many will say, ‘See, those damned Unions protect bad teachers. Get rid of Unions.”

  • Gerald Glass

    I teach Math in Las Vegas (7 years H.S, 1 year 8th grade); From everything I have read and seen (manuals, standards, etc), it seems to be geared for the
    more talented or gifted Math student, not the average or below-average Math
    student (which we have a pre-ponderance of here in Las Vegas); We can’t turn
    all of our high-school students into Calculus-ready students for college by increasing the rigor and conceptual nature of the curriculum until we totally
    disillusion these students with the whole education process! Someone missed
    the ball on this one!

  • Jim Niebling

    Like it or not, folks, your job has become a political football. On the one hand, we have one party taking away money and resources at the same time they raise standards and “acountibility”. Simply put, they want to privatize ALL public education. Meanwhile, we have a flourishing test-making industry with deep pockets to pay lobbyists to push for CCSS and render the other party inept. While advocating for more standards and different tests, they make more money and become more influential. We are living in the perfect political storm right now.

  • MM in CT

    I have to agree with everything everyone has said. Teaching is my second career. I was a biologist for 11 years. This is my 14th year teaching and I’m looking for my next career. I’m tired of being a lab rat for a bunch of EdD’s with 3 years of teaching experience telling me how to do things so they can “collect” their data and get their next promotion. I tell my high school kids the same thing… Don’t go into teaching. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have had the experience. I actually fostered and adopted one of my students. She’s a wonderful girl, college grad, working full time in her field and thinking about getting engaged. This job is no longer about teaching and learning and helping kids figure out their lives. I’m done.

  • Ms. Malarky

    On paper the CCSS are great! I love how they raise the rigor of the content taught in our classrooms. There is a focus on vocabulary, higher order thinking and comprehension in both fiction and non-fiction. Students are expected to have superior skills with number sense. It is all great!

    My question is though – when we already have students who couldn’t pass the old standards, why are we bringing in tougher ones? Why are we holding teachers accountable for things that they cannot control outside of the 5 1/2 hours they spend teaching students a day? Parents have to play a part in these new CCSS and spend time with their kids working on rote skills and reading, writing and problem solving.

    Someone said in an earlier post that they got a response of “well every kid isn’t meant to go to college” I do agree with that. Not everyone is. But everyone should be afforded a chance to work hard in school and achieve a grade that meets their level of work. The CCSS do not allow discrepancies in abilities for either students with special needs or students who just are not college bound.

    It is high time that politicians, the union, administrators, teachers, and people in general stop having utopian views that all people are the same and will learn the same. We cannot be a “classless” society, it is impossible to undo 20,000 years of human evolution. People cannot do jobs that they do not hold the intellect to perform. I include myself in that category, for there a great many jobs that I could never do. Let’s start teaching children to their strengths and guiding them in that career path – whether it be college bound or not – all of us are important participants in our society and have a job to do!

  • MM in CT

    Ms malarkey for president!

  • Maria Schrenger

    I too am angry at Dennis Von Roekel & at Randi Weingarten for selling us out. The common core standards are psychotic – especially for what they expect for kg. and first graders. People that don’t see that have a screw loose somewhere in their head! It’s all a ploy to dismantle public schools and save tax dollars so corporations can have profit making charter schools.

  • Lizzie

    It amazes me that no one deals with the “in your face” issue that has been the “elephant in the room” for years. I guess it is easier to blame teachers and their incompetance and lack of “professionalism, experience, knowledge of content, etc.etc.etc.”. In fact, as Kathy Blackwell, Ms. Malarkey, Felak, and others have stated the issues that prevent student success are the issues that changes in testing do not begin to realize. Contrary to what the media and politicians have insisted upon since “NCLB”, teachers are not the culprits. To accurately assess what really happens in the classroom, politicians and those who advocate stronger test delivery should be mandated to spend time managing and teaching in a real classroom setting, a public school in any major city. They should teach in the real schools where there are no less than thirty students in a classroom. They should create the plans, evaluate each individual student’s work giving feedback, respond in a timely manner to constant administrative reports, keep parents apprised of student progress, prepare assessments, then interventions based on student scores, prepare accomodations and differentiations for each student, attend regular meetings during the day leaving no planning time for even a daily bathroom break. Did you know most teachers do not drink water so they will not have to “relieve themselves”? Oh, did I mention, constantly add to and prepare documentation and feedback for the massive “teacher evaluation” performance review that is regularly required. Teachers are even held accountable for student activity on computer programs when there are no computers available or limited computers available for use.
    The sad reality is that teachers are dedicated professionals who are in this profession because we want children to achieve, succeed, and excel in whatever profession they choose. We encourage them when they come to school sick. We feel for them when they come to school homeless, we celebrate with them when they accomplish what we knew they could accomplish with encouragement and support.
    We work extremely hard to meet the requirements and mandates set in front of us. Will a new test structure, CCSS, solve the problem? Probably not! At least not until the concrete issues that have plagued teachers for years are dealt with. These issues are and remain: teacher planning time that is not administratively designated time for whatever their need is, an aid or assistant in every classroom where there are more that 25 students, computers for every student, especially when the curriculum demands the use of them. As teachers, we are accommodating, resilient, and we will work as hard as necessary for the children we continue to serve, in spite of the constant degradation of our professional, “highly qualified”, educational talents and abilities.

  • kathy benninger

    Wow. I’ve read these letters and agreed with very many of them – but I haven’t seen anyone hit the nail on the head – this program (as well as CSCOPE), is for the main purpose of dumbing down our kids so they can enter a Socialistic/Marxist society without a fight. I am more petrified now than I’ve ever been in my entire life!

  • Bill

    Seems that most folks are not happy with NEA’s stance on CC. Will NEA comment?

  • Bill

    Seems that most folks, since this article was published, are not happy with NEA’s stance. Will NEA take that into account or comment?

  • Donna Shubert

    I am so tired of our unions representing the USDOE, corporate interests and everyone but their members. Here in Florida we have the Broward Teachers Union using staff, money and time to get teachers to “embrace” the new evaluation system at the expense of our members who have real concerns and issues with working conditions, low salaries and high health care costs. The AFT thinks the solution to everything is “Share My Lesson” and, apparently, the NEA is pretty comfortable with Common Core. Thank goodness the FEA is fighting in court to get some of Florida’s anti-teacher, anti-public school legislation thrown out. One out of four unions standing up for us is pretty sad though. I have to laugh when people talk about how strong teachers unions are.

  • L. Kaler

    Ms. Malarky has said it all!

  • 25 Years 7 Wheels

    Scary. And to think, I am on a CCSS team at my district set to train others. The more I’m “learning” about it, the more I see it’s just another cycle, albeit somewhat different in structure than the past “hypes”. Soooo much paperwork and verbal mumbo-jumbo surrounding three concepts. Vast amounts of money being spent on training, when teachers are being cut and the multiple new schools being built with improvement funds lay empty. Most of my top-notch students with low-income or even average-income families do not want to go to college. Too many hoops! Someone stick me with a fork, I’m so done!

  • MM in CT

    Would someone with official standing in the NEA please pull their head out of the sand and give us some answers. Seems like a good time to start a new union. One that represents its teachers and not the politicians that cut the leadership in on the pie.

  • Maria Ennella

    Hello NEA are you out there? What do you think of our opinions on CCSS?
    This is my 38th year teaching, which I love. I have seen the pendulum swing back
    and forth in my career. Raising standards without differentiating for those who
    have diverse needs and do poorly on standardized tests doesn’t make sense. We
    are not made with the same intellectual ability, therefore we cannot be measured
    with the same tests. We need change in that direction. Change we can believe in!

  • Justin Slavin

    Forgive me, but perhaps I missed the part about parent responsibility. If this was a problem that could be fixed by teachers it would have already been fixed. The problem is this bs pc attitude about calling parents out for not parenting. You can watch two children being raised prior to schooling: one by parent(s) who constantly read to them, sound out words, challenge them to understand and a second that uses baby talk and a tv to occupy their child. That first kid will be well ahead of the second before the education indoctrination begins; no amount of teaching will change that once a foundation is reached, the first kid will be more advanced. So instead of programs of stream lined indoctrination why are you not working on EDUCATING THE PARENTS? Having a nation of unintelligent people as a result of “trying everything we could” is one thing but to have a nation of ignorant people because you didn’t want to hurt their parents feelings? That’s just cowardly and irresponsible. If you’re going to educate, educate. Don’t educate “as long as it’s the easiest least confrontational way”. Jesus.

  • Karen

    Thank God I’m retired from the public schools. When I see this garbage being promoted as something good for education, I want to puke! The Federal government needs to get OUT of the education business and let the states handle their own educational systems. This is another attempt at government control of what our children are allowed to be taught. If I had children today in school, I’d either home school them or put them in a private school. No way would I allow them to be subject to this. I work with special ed students privately now, and you wouldn’t believe the commercialism in their curriculum! They have my children with mental handicaps reading “picture stories” rather than teaching them how to read, and the stories no more than commercials! One of my kids was just positive he was going to see “The Croods” when it came out because that’s what they had been reading about all week in their “picture stories.” Each week it’s another commercial!!! I’m SICK of public education, and I used to be their greatest advocate. I see my friends in teaching getting more and more weary, and they have no voice because if they speak out, they are not “team players” and they will be observed right on out of the system! Thank you for allowing Bill Ayers, just another guy in the neighborhood, to transform our educational system…to transform it into a dumbed down, out-of-control bureaucracy that serves to weaken our country from within!

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