The Politics of the Common Core Assessments

July 2016

In 2009, 48 states and the District of Columbia joined together to launch the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Their mission: to develop common academic standards in English and mathematics that would help ensure that “all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life.”

It was a laudable goal, but one that 15 years of federal mandates had failed to accomplish. Tasked by the federal government with bringing all students to “proficiency,” most states set undemanding standards, and the quality of their assessments varied widely. The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association set out to raise and unify K–12 standards through the Common Core initiative.


Common standards call for common assessments. Late in 2009, the Obama administration, through its Race to the Top program, announced a competition for $350 million in grant money to spur the development of “next-generation” tests aligned to the Common Core. Six consortia formed to submit applications for funding, but mergers left just two seeking to develop the new assessments. The government awarded four-year grants to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.


Earlier in 2009, also through Race to the Top, the administration had offered $4.35 billion in funding through a competitive grant program designed to encourage states to enact the feds’ preferred school-reform policies—including the adoption of better standards and assessments. Most states were willing to sign on to Common Core and the aligned tests to improve their chances of winning a grant. By 2011, one year after the standards had officially been released, 45 states plus the District of Columbia had signed on to the standards and joined one or both of the assessment consortia.


But as states moved to implement the new standards and assessments, controversy began to swirl around the reforms. Although the Common Core standards drew criticism from parents and pundits, from the right and the left, most states stood firm in embracing them. Yet loyalty to the consortia’s assessments has proved much weaker. The number of states planning to use the new tests dropped from 45 in 2011 to 20 in 2016.


This presents a puzzle: why have so many states abandoned the consortia, even as the standards on which they are based continue to live on in most places?


Read the full article in Education Next.