Just How Common Are the Standards in Common Core States?

Shira Korn, Martin Gamboa, Morgan Polikoff
Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Common Core standards were motivated by a simple argument, that “high standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live.” Thus, the adoption of the CCSS is aimed at increasing national educational equity and quality with the goal of preparing all students for long-term success. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia (henceforth we refer to DC as a state for ease of presentation) have adopted these standards, but states adopting the standards were allowed to edit or add to them[1]. This made us wonder—just how “common” is the Common Core, at least as implemented in state content standards?

Part of our mission as C-SAIL is to analyze the alignment of standards and assessments. Before we can do that, we first need to determine what standards are being implemented in each state. This post sheds some initial light on that question by asking two questions: 1) For the states that call themselves “Common Core” states (or did before that term became politically unfavorable), how similar are their state-specific versions of the CCSS to the CCSS as originally written? and 2) For states that have made changes and additions to the CCSS in adopting them, are those changes and additions substantive? This post examines the CCSS for fourth-grade math and ELA, but we will eventually also analyze eighth grade (we will also analyze non-Common Core states’ standards).

How Similar Are State Standards to Common Core?

First, we identified how many states have made changes to the standards and whether these changes were minor (additions and edits to several standards) or major (addition and edits to most standards[2]). For fourth grade math, we found that 28 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards verbatim[3], 12 with minor changes or additions, and three with major changes or additions. For the states that made minor changes, an average of about two to three changes were made, ranging from a low of one change to a high of 11.

Somewhat more changes were made in ELA, with only 20 states adopting verbatim, 21 making minor changes, and three making major changes. Of those states that made minor changes, they made more than in math with an average of 4.7 (ranging from 1 to 14). The breakdown of these categories by state are represented in the figures below.

What Changes Did States Make?

With a third to a half of the states editing the standards in some form, we sought a clearer picture of the changes being made. We divided the changes into two categories: edits (where a state revised or replaced a standard) and additions (where a state added an entirely new standard).  

Edits to the standards were described as either substantive (rewriting or major editing) or non-substantive (minor clarifications and additions). A substantive change in math is exemplified by Colorado’s version of CCSS 4.OA.C.5 and a non-substantive change by Louisiana’s version of CCSS 4.OA.A.2 as shown below:


Type of Change
State Version
Generate a number or shape pattern that follows a given rule. Identify apparent features of the pattern that were not explicit in the rule itself. For example, given the rule "Add 3" and the starting number 1, generate terms in the resulting sequence and observe that the terms appear to alternate between odd and even numbers. Explain informally why the numbers will continue to alternate in this way.
Colorado Version:
Generate and analyze patterns and identify apparent features of the pattern that were not explicit in the rule itself.
i. Use number relationships to find the missing number in a sequence
ii. Use a symbol to represent and find an unknown
quantity in a problem situation
iii. Complete input/output tables
iv. Find the unknown in simple equations
Multiply or divide to solve word problems involving multiplicative comparison, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem, distinguishing multiplicative comparison from additive comparison.
Louisiana Version:
Multiply or divide to solve word problems involving multiplicative comparison, e.g., by using drawings and/or equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem, distinguishing multiplicative comparison from additive comparison (Example: 6 times as many vs 6 more than.)


In ELA the most common non-substantive edit was changing the words “grade level” to “on level” in one or more standards. An example of a substantive edit was in Montana, where many standards were edited to specifically encourage teachers to use texts by and about American Indians.

Some states also chose to add entirely new standards to the preexisting core. While most states have only contributed one or two new standards to the math standards, Pennsylvania tops the charts with 22 additional standards. The content of these additions ranges from developing number fluency to data analysis and encompasses a variety of topics in between. Pennsylvania, for example, has included a standard that requires students to “translate information from one type of data display to another” and Arizona asks students to “solve a variety of problems based on the multiplication principle of counting.” Similarly, most states adding to the ELA standards added only one to three new standards. In contrast, Colorado added 27. Perhaps the most common addition in ELA was that eight states added a cursive writing requirement to the fourth grade standards.

Interesting Cases

In analyzing state standards, a few cases stood out to us as especially interesting. While the majority of states have either adopted the standards verbatim or with minor edits, some states have made more substantial changes and are worth discussing individually. These cases include Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York, Alaska, and South Carolina.

Both Colorado and Pennsylvania had originally adopted the CCSS in 2010, yet soon after, they replaced these standards with the Colorado Academic Standards and Pennsylvania Core Standards respectively. According to the state, the creation of the Colorado Academic Standards was motivated by insufficiency, as the CCSS failed to incorporate several unique aspects of Colorado’s previous standards, including financial literacy and preschool expectations. The revised Colorado standards in ELA include the Common Core State Standards verbatim plus 27 additional ELA standards, such as “Write poems that express ideas or feelings using imagery, figurative language, and sensory details.”

The development of the Pennsylvania Core Standards signifies more of a political statement in response to perceptions of federal meddling in state issues (at least as according to news reports at the time). In the fourth grade math standards, the Pennsylvania Core edits almost every CCSS and supplements with an additional 22 standards. An example of one such addition requires students to “translate information from one type of display to another (table, chart, bar graph, or pictograph).”

New York has similarly initiated a revision of the CCSS, with the official release date scheduled for November 4th, 2016. The aim of the revision is to increase clarity, grade appropriateness, and input from regional teachers and stakeholders. Some criticize the draft new standards for their close resemblance to the CCSS, yet early surveys indicate a majority positive response from parents and teachers.

Thus far, Alaska and South Carolina have been left out of our conversation, as they are not technically Common Core states. Nonetheless, the Alaska State Standards and the South Carolina State Standards bear such resemblance to the CCSS that they are worth mentioning. Both Alaska and South Carolina have rejected the Common Core in opposition to federal influence, yet both sets of standards seem to be approximately on par with Colorado and Pennsylvania in terms of their similarity to the Common Core. The similarities between Alaska and South Carolina standards and the Common Core suggests that the “non-Common Core” label in those states might be more of a political statement than an accurate reflection of the content of their standards.


Overall, out of the 42 Common Core-aligned states and the District of Columbia, about two-thirds to half have accepted the CCSS verbatim. Of the remaining third, most states have made only minor changes or additions to the standards while several states (New York, Colorado, and Pennsylvania) have made major changes. Major changes seem to be motivated either by a desire for increased clarity and attention to regional needs or by resistance to federal control.

We will continue to examine states’ standards in other grades, but for now, our findings provoke several questions: For the states that have modified the CCSS, 1) Do teachers actually perceive these differences and do the differences matter for instruction (and do these answers vary across subjects or grade levels)? 2) Are the modifications reflected in the curriculum materials used in the state? And 3) Do the changes have an impact on student learning?

[1] The so-called 15% rule allowed states to add up to 15% of content to the standards, presumably in order to strengthen state control and buy-in.

[2] We did the best we could to identify the current standards in each state based on their website. It is possible in some states we identified out-of-date information. If you see an error in our classification of any state, please let us know at gse-csail@gse.upenn.edu.

[3] We ignored typos when counting states as verbatim or not.