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Common Core Math Standards: 3 Key Shifts

Common core

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort to create a consistent set of academic standards that states can adopt and implement across the nation. The standards have been developed for Kindergarten through 12th grade students in both English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics. While many parents, students, and educators seem to have an intuitive understanding of some of the shifts that need to occur in ELA classes, it’s not immediately clear why our approach to Math has had to change as well. After all, numbers are numbers, right? Not so fast. Read on for a better understanding of what exactly has changed when it comes to Mathematics instruction in our country, as well as the reasons behind this change in approach.

The Three Key Shifts

As with the ELA Standards, the creators of the Common Core have identified 3 “key shifts” in how Mathematics instruction should be approached. Once you understand these shifts, you’ll better understand why our approach to Math standards needed to change, as well as how this change is being implemented in classes from Kindergarten to 12th grade.

  • SHIFT 1: Greater focus on fewer topics. This shift is all about narrowing in on fewer topics so that teachers have more time to explore each topic in depth. This shift is a move away from curricula that the Common Core creators refer to as “mile-wide and inch-deep.” Instead of requiring students to master a range of operations in every single grade, students will instead focus on fewer concepts and skills to build deeper understandings and a stronger foundation of critical thinking skills. These concepts and skills are broken down across the elementary grades as follows:
    • In grades K–2: Concepts, skills, and problem solving related to addition and subtraction
    • In grades 3–5: Concepts, skills, and problem solving related to multiplication and division of whole numbers and fractions
    • In grade 6: Ratios and proportional relationships, and early algebraic expressions and equations
    • In grade 7: Ratios and proportional relationships, and arithmetic of rational numbers
    • In grade 8: Linear algebra and linear functions
  • SHIFT 2: Coherence: Linking topics and thinking across grades. The goal of this shift is to move away from thinking about Mathematics as a series of disconnected techniques. Instead, students will be required to build on their learning from one year to the next. For example, once students learn about ratios and proportional relationships in 6th and 7th grades, they’ll then be ready to tackle algebraic concepts in 8th grade. Instead of thinking about the standards as a kind of checklist of things students must learn in isolation, this shift requires students and teachers to approach the standards as a road map with necessary fueling stations along the way.
  • SHIFT 3: Rigor: Pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application with equal intensity. Rigor typically means the difficulty of the task at hand, but the intent of the Common Core creators is not simply to make Mathematics harder, but to require that students have a truly deep understanding of three aspects of math:
    • Conceptual Understanding: Students should have deep knowledge about how mathematical systems work instead of memorizing “tricks” or other mnemonic devices in order to get by.
    • Procedural Skills and Fluency: Students should be able to quickly and accurately calculate as part of their problem solving process. This will require more time for practice for some students in order to achieve mastery.
    • Application: Students should be able to use Math to solve real-world problems instead of isolated questions in a textbook.

[box type=”success” align=”” class=”text-align: center” width=””]Find out more about other facts and myth with our General Common Core and ELA Standards article.[/box]

Common Core

Math Standards by Grade Level

The Common Core Math Standards can be read by grade level, however the creators of the Common Core point out that the standards in themselves are not a set curriculum. Teachers retain the freedom to create lessons and move standards around in order as their students require. The concepts and skills listed above appear in the standards for grades K-8, and the high school standards include the following areas, which are not limited or prescribed to specific grade levels or courses:

  • Number and Quality
  • Algebra
  • Functions
  • Modeling
  • Geometry
  • Statistics and Probability

The standards also include”clusters,” which are groups of related standards. The standards also indicate “domains,” which are larger groups of related standards. This is a different approach than the way Math instruction has previously been done because the focus is on how skills and concepts build upon one another instead of seeing Math as a series of disconnected subtopics.

Math Standards by Domain

The Common Core Math Standards can also be read by domain instead of by grade level. Each domain lists standards that appear in different grade levels. In this way, parents, students, and educators can get a snapshot of how and when different concepts are repeatedly taught over the course of a student’s entire academic career. The domains for Mathematics are as follows:

  • Counting and Cardinality
  • Operations and Algebraic Thinking
  • Number and Operations in Base Ten
  • Number and Operations – Fractions
  • Measurement and Data
  • Geometry
  • Ratios and Proportional Relationships
  • The Number System
  • Expressions and Equations
  • Functions
  • Statistics and Probability

Looking at the Math standards through the lens of the different domains can help you to understand how this new approach to Math requires that students continue to deepen their existing knowledge over time as opposed to mastering a skill in isolation and moving on from it to something unrelated.

In sum, students who are learning Math in districts where the Common Core State Standards have been implemented will be required to go much deeper into their fundamental understanding of math concepts and skills. They will begin doing this as early as Kindergarten, and continue to build on these foundational understandings well into their elementary and high school years, and ideally into college and/or their chosen career. The shifts require a different way of looking at problem solving, one that will ideally result in deeper critical thinkers and stronger problem solvers!

[box type=”success” align=”” class=”” width=””]If you need help in any of the math standards, check out which covers everything for middle school and high school students.[/box]

SOURCE: Common Core State Standards Initiative,


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