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Report · September 2019

Common Core State Standards in California: Evaluating Local Implementation and Student Outcomes

Niu Gao and Julien Lafortune

In 2010, California adopted the Common Core State Standards for math and English. The new standards are part of a state effort to prepare students for college and careers in the 21st-century global economy and narrow longstanding achievement gaps. The state’s implementation is complete, but because districts decide whether and when they will adopt the standards, far less is known about local efforts. So it is still unclear whether the Common Core standards are succeeding.

In early 2019, we surveyed school districts to gauge their progress on Common Core implementation. We then used statewide data and examined the differences in local textbook adoption to understand the effects of CCSS implementation on student outcomes. This report details our findings:

  • Progress is uneven. Seventy percent of respondents have aligned their curricula, instructional materials, and local assessments with the standards-more so in English than in math. However, 30 percent have not yet started, and the share is higher among rural high schools.
  • Most districts implemented recently. Most districts aligned their curricula and textbooks in or after the first year that the new Smarter Balanced assessments (SBAC) were administered (2014-15). Local adoption often occurs in phases, starting with certain grades or subjects and spreading to others over time.
  • Instructional practices lag behind. Most teachers have not fully aligned their classroom instruction with the new standards. This alignment is key to achieving desired student outcomes. On average, more progress has been made among English teachers than math teachers.
  • We find modest improvements among elementary and middle school students in districts that have adopted the standards. Districts that adopted the Common Core standards saw a 2-3 percent increase in the share of students at or above English proficiency on SBAC. Middle school math proficiency increased by just under 2 percent; elementary math results were insignificant. Gains were similar across most major student subgroups, though they were slightly larger among low-income and Latino students.
  • The impact of the standards in high schools is inconclusive. We found no overall effect on graduation rates, the share of students taking or passing Advanced Placement courses, the share of students taking the SAT exams, or the share completing the “a-g” courses required by California’s four-year public universities.

These findings point to several steps the state can take to help districts implement the standards.

  • Invest in programs to monitor local implementation and provide continuous support. In particular, the state could leverage its networks to provide targeted assistance to late/non-adopters and rural schools.
  • Provide more guidance about quality, content-based, professional development, especially for math teachers. The state also needs to identify and invest in innovative programs that can deliver high-quality training to remote areas.
  • Collaborate with researchers and educators to identify effective system shifts that may be scalable across the state. These may include principal leadership, community engagement, and data-driven decision-making.

As the state continues to support Common Core implementation, policymakers should not assume that local districts are able to implement these and other new standards without extra help or encouragement. Tracking and assisting district implementation would go a long way toward improving standards adoption. It would also help us to better understand what is working-and what is not.


K–12 Education