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Beating the Common Core


Beating the Common Core

Specific advice for mastering the four toughest standards in reading and math. By Dr. Mark Ellis, Dr. Maureen McLaughlin, and Dr. Brenda Overturf

The Common Core State Standards are designed to help students build a solid foundation of knowledge and skills in preparation for both college and career. To help students meet the expectations of these more rigorous standards, it is important for educators to focus on the standards that students struggle with most.

Based on i-Ready diagnostic data from more than 750,000 students, Curriculum Associates has identified four standards as the most difficult in reading and math. These findings are shared below to help educators better plan and maximize their instructional time, accelerate student progress, and create learning environments in which all students can succeed.


In reading, the findings show students need extra support with informational as opposed to literary texts, as well as with complex texts. The most challenging standards are those that require synthesis skills, including those related to:

  1. Determining central ideas or themes and summarizing details
  2. Analyzing text structure
  3. Integrating and evaluating content in diverse media and formats
  4. Analyzing similar topics and themes across texts

The data show one of the most challenging standards is CCSS Reading Anchor Standard 7, which relates to #3 above. This standard focuses on students’ ability to draw on information from multiple sources and to integrate information from diverse media (audio, video, multimedia presentations, photos, illustrations, graphic novels, and more) and in varied formats (textbooks, charts, graphs, magazine articles, newspapers) when researching and problem solving. Diverse media help teach this standard and are highly engaging for 21st-century learners.

Another challenging standard is Reading Standard 9, which relates to #4 above. In this standard, students analyze texts to find similar themes and topics and identify where texts may agree or disagree based on fact or opinion.

Tips for Teachers

How can teachers incorporate multimodal text as part of student instruction? Look for content that exists in multiple formats. For example, engage students by listening to a speech like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” in addition to reading it. Other examples of texts represented in diverse media include The Very Hungry Caterpillar (DVD) for younger grades and Hamlet (audiobook) for older students.

To help teach Standard 9, use graphic organizers, interactive comparison/contrast digital tools, and rich content. Programs such as i-Ready and content tools such as those found at Big History Project, Discovery Education, PBS LearningMedia, and NASA are examples of some of the valuable resources out there.

To help students meet Reading Standard 9, administrators should also encourage teachers to engage students in classroom activities that require them to identify similarities and differences in texts. Administrators should provide teachers with access to various texts on the same topic—including books, magazines, and technology sources—as well as adequate time to plan together to achieve the goal of this standard.


In math, standards that require deeper conceptual understanding prove the most challenging. They include standards related to:

  1. Geometric measurement
  2. Modeling problem situations
  3. Fractions
  4. Statistics

The new standards emphasize the concepts behind calculations and reasoning about complex problems, so it’s no longer enough for students to know basic algorithms and facts. Instead, they need to reason and analyze in order to make data-based decisions and develop creative approaches to non-routine problems. Research confirms that students are more likely to use their skills accurately and flexibly when they understand the concepts behind the computations.

Tips for Teachers

Below are some tips for teachers to address the need for addressing deeper conceptual understanding.

  • Connect new material to students’ prior knowledge or experiences. This ultimately helps build students’ ability to recall and retain knowledge over time.

  • Engage students in hands-on activities. With regard to geometric measurement, for example, ask younger students to measure various parts of their body with yarn and find the lengths in centimeters. Then ask groups to compare the measurements of two students and make posters for the class math wall.

  • Continually reinforce measurement concepts and skills in an informal yet productive way. Try occasional estimation tasks that get students thinking and talking.

  • Assess and revisit older students’ understanding of the six key measurement concepts. These two articles, “Measurement of Length: How Can We Teach It Better?” by Constance Kamii and “Assessing Children’s Understanding of Length Measurement” by Heidi Bush, offer assessment items that target these concepts.

  • Build student understanding of fraction operations by using the concept of unit fractions together with area and number line models as shown in this set of videos from Illustrative Mathematics.

  • Encourage students to share (and stretch) their mathematical thinking! One strategy to get students started with this is Math Talks, sometimes called Number Talks, which promote mental reasoning and encourage greater flexibility in mathematics.

Teachers and administrators must also recognize that students are not the only ones learning and that students’ input can help teachers deepen their own understanding of mathematics. Administrators must additionally facilitate professional development driven by teacher input, organize schedules that promote collaboration, and model intellectual curiosity by increasing their own understanding of mathematics.

To learn more about the Common Core State Standards that students find the most challenging, visit www.ReadyCommonCore.com/MostChallengingStandards.

Dr. Mark Ellis is a National Board certified teacher and professor of education at California State University at Fullerton. Dr. Maureen McLaughlin is a professor in the Reading Department at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. Dr. Brenda Overturf is the chair of the IRA Common Core Standards Committee. All three are also Ready authors. 

Image: Hero Images/Media Bakery

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