It’s not easy to make sense of the debate over the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts.

Gov. Scott Walker, a potential presidential aspirant, wants to do away with the standards but has acknowledged that school districts aren’t obligated to ditch them under state law. Still, some Republican lawmakers are drafting legislation that would create different standards, or give schools the option to administer state tests that aren’t linked to Common Core standards.

Opposition to the standards comes from both sides of the political aisle — some conservatives have said they don’t like that the federal government gave large monetary incentives to states to adopt them, while others, including some teachers, dislike the emphasis on testing.

Developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with major funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the standards are benchmarks in English language arts and math that tell teachers (and others) what students should be able to know and do by the end of each grade.

Helping the groups craft the standards were an array of college professors, state education officials, K-12 public school teachers, testing officials from the College Board and ACT Inc. as well as the Washington-based research and advocacy group Achieve.

Advocates are quick to point out what they are not: They are not a curriculum, or a reading list. The standards inform a curriculum, but teachers create their own lessons, or pick books, projects or field trips that help their students meet the benchmarks.

Here are answers to some common questions about the program:

Why were the standards created? The standards can be traced to the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” which found U.S. students’ skill levels were not keeping pace with the demands of employers or their international peers. That report’s findings spurred a wave of education reforms, including the current effort to ensure there are specific standards or benchmarks all students in the U.S. should meet before graduating from high school. The intent was to increase rigor, critical thinking and prepare students better for college or careers.

Did the federal government have a role? The U.S. Department of Education did not have a hand in writing the standards, but it did offer states millions of dollars in Race to the Top funding to adopt them. That has served as the basis for many conservatives’ concerns over federal government involvement.

Why are they only for math and English language arts? The standards’ creators say English language arts — which cover reading and writing — and math are the areas upon which students build skills that are used for all other subjects. For grades 6-12, there are specific Common Core literacy standards in history/social studies, science and technical subjects. These literacy standards are separate from state-based subject-matter standards.

Who wrote the standards for the other subjects? There are standards available for other subjects developed by national groups, like the Next Generation Science Standards, or the Partnership for 21st Century Skills standards, for example. Wisconsin and many other states have kept their own standards in other subjects.

Do school districts have to use the Common Core standards? Not in Wisconsin. Because school districts have local control protected by law, individual school boards must adopt their own standards, which means school districts were not required to adopt Common Core when the state Department of Public Instruction did in 2010.

What happens if they don’t? The primary concern for school districts if they don’t use the state’s adopted standards is how their students will fare on standardized tests. Tests from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers are being given to students in most states this school year. The tests are aligned to Common Core standards and test students’ knowledge of those subjects. Students might not be prepared to take Common Core-linked tests if a school district is not using lessons based on Common Core standards. In such a case, schools could receive poorer ratings in a state’s accountability system or teachers could receive poor ratings on new evaluations.

What tests are used for the other subjects? That varies by state, but in Wisconsin, students will continue to take the Wisconsin Concepts and Knowledge Exams in science and social studies.

Why are the Common Core standards controversial? Many reasons — primarily because conservatives in the last two years have raised concerns over what they perceive as pressure from the U.S. Department of Education by offering monetary incentives to states that adopt them. That funding is the basis for a perception that the standards are federal mandates or serve a nationalized curriculum. Others have raised concerns about the amount of testing students are subjected to because of Common Core, or about the emphasis the standards have on nonfiction texts.

What has Gov. Walker said about them? The governor said in June 2014 that he wanted the Legislature to repeal Common Core. He went further at the Republican Governors Association annual meeting in November by saying the state was taking steps to get rid of the standards and replace them with standards created solely for Wisconsin students. Since then, however, he has acknowledged that school districts can legally adopt their own standards. He said he doesn’t want districts to be forced to keep them if they don’twant to.

What is the Legislature doing with them? It’s hard to say at this point. Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, and not all of them agree on what to do. Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, is introducing a bill that would create a standards board to craft new standards. Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, also is drafting accountability legislation that would give schools testing options instead of requiring just one test tied to the Common Core standards.


Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.