Common Core State Standards: College and Career Readiness

William H. Young

In commenting in 1983 on the growing mediocrity of American public education, A Nation at Risk warned that:

Individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. A high level of shared education is essential….[1]

Where does the nation stand—thirty years later—with regard to the results of shared education?

In 2012, an ACT study showed that only 43 percent of community college graduates—and thus far fewer mere high school graduates—were adequately skilled for “occupations paying a wage sufficient to support a family.”[2] The 2012 ACT college-entrance exam showed that only 25 percent of students who took the test met the college-readiness benchmark. While 42 percent of Asians and 32 percent of Whites met the benchmark, only 13 percent of Hispanics and 5 percent of African Americans did, ten years after No Child Left Behind (NCLB) began.[3] A majority of high school graduates still must take remedial courses—euphemistically called “developmental”—before enrolling in college-level courses.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) erect the rungs in a ladder of opportunity and achievement through Grades K−12 that prepares students to pass the ACT college-entrance exam. Critics charge that the CCSS college and career readiness standard is inadequate because it will prepare students only for a non-selective community college or the workplace rather than for an advanced program at a four-year university. Ironically, the critics are half right.

ACT has long defined college and career readiness as the acquisition of the knowledge and skills a student needs to enroll and succeed in credit-bearing, first-year courses in a postsecondary institution (such as a two- or four-year college, trade school, or technical school) without the need for remediation. ACT’s definition of college and career readiness was adopted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative and provides a unifying goal upon which educators and policymakers now must act….[4]

The CCSS seek to make high school graduates ready for entry-level courses at four-year as well as two-year institutions—but not everyone for any academic program at an elite university. Appropriately, the CCSS are a floor, not a ceiling. The CCSS also provide academic paths for students to acquire readiness for advanced programs in college, such as STEM. The CCSS strike the right balance in trying to realize the “high level of shared education” sought by A Nation at Risk.

The development of the CCSS was led by Achieve, Inc., a non-profit organization created in 1996 by a bipartisan coalition of state governors and top corporate executives to raise the academic standards of K‒12 education. Achieve provides the following perspective regarding the aims of the CCSS: 

Being “college-ready” means being prepared for any postsecondary experience, including study at two- and four-year institutions leading to a postsecondary credential (i.e., a certificate, license, Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree). Being academically ready for college means that a high school graduate has the English and mathematics knowledge and skills necessary to qualify for and succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing coursework without the need for remedial coursework….

In today’s economy, a “career” is not just a job. A career provides a family-sustaining wage and pathways to advancement and nearly always requires postsecondary training or education. Being ready for a career means that a high school graduate has the English and math knowledge and skills needed to qualify for and succeed in the postsecondary job training and/or education necessary for their chosen career (i.e., technical/vocational program, community college, apprenticeship or significant on-the-job training).[5]

The manner in which the CCSS are designed to produce high school graduates both college and career ready is described in a 2012 Achieve report:

The goal of ensuring that all students graduate from high school ready for college, careers, and life has taken hold in every state across the nation. Yet all too often, the focus on “college readiness” and “career readiness” remains in two distinct silos, even though there is little question that reading, writing, communications, and mathematical reasoning are all core skills for success in postsecondary education, in the workplace and for citizenship….Academic and career and technical education (CTE) leaders at the state and local levels can and should maximize this opportunity to finally break down the silos between their disciplines…Exploring these opportunities requires more fully understanding how the CCSS differ from the typical state ELA and math standards they have replaced….

Perhaps the most significant change for CTE programs is that the CCSS include literacy (reading and writing) standards for the teaching of history/social studies, science and technical subjects, not just for the ELA classroom. The standards explain what students should be able to do in reading and writing related to content that is specific to the technical disciplines taught in CTE courses. The CCSS do not ask the CTE instructor to teach basic reading skills but to help students develop deeper reading comprehension within the technical discipline. In addition, in reading, another major advance is the shift away from literature-focused standards to a balance of literature and informational texts to reflect college-and career-ready expectations. The CCSS also focus more on text complexity and at what level students should be reading….[6]

A recent Brookings Institution paper points out that “good jobs in the nation’s twenty-first-century economy require advanced literacy skills such as categorizing, evaluating, and drawing conclusions from written texts.”[7] But the reading literacy scores of 17-year-olds from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained unsatisfactory and flat for decades.[8] The NAEP reading framework expects students to be able to read 70 percent informational and 30 percent literary texts by Grade 12, which has not been reflected in students’ education and the CCSS are finally requiring. As I argued previously in Nonfiction Versus Fiction, the appropriate, more complex informational and literary texts called for by the CCSS should replace the Blob’s dumbed-down politically correct fantasy fiction and content-free nonfiction, the enablers of poor student literacy.

One of the CCSS opponents, Stanford mathematician emeritus R. James Milgrim, criticizes the pace of CCSS coverage of arithmetic and algebra and lack of a requirement to complete calculus in high school to be college ready.[9] But a colleague at UC-Berkeley, professor Hung-Hsi Wu, expresses a contrary view:

A misguided hypothesis has emerged: the best way to educate our brightest students in mathematics is to let them accelerate through the grades. Many of us in institutions of higher learning across the country do not agree….The CCSSM will undoubtedly be more challenging to all students because for the first time, students will be asked to master both procedural and conceptual knowledge and learn each topic in a logical progression….

Mathematics is by nature hierarchical. Every step is a preparation for the next one. Learning it properly requires thorough grounding at each step, and skimming over any topics will only weaken one’s ability to tackle more complex material down the road. The weakness usually shows up in students’ scientific work in college. This is one reason why many of my colleagues bemoan the practice of acceleration in schools.[10]

In college and graduate school, I mastered as much advanced mathematics as most readers of this essay. I began with an engineering degree from the Webb Institute, one of the most rigorous and demanding colleges in the nation. I never took calculus in high school, but received a thorough grounding in its prerequisites. I submit that taking calculus in high school should be neither a requirement nor an objective of the CCSS for general college readiness. The CCSS allow for students needing calculus for their intended college studies to be able to advance and take it in high school. But most students will not benefit from doing so, as the most common score on the AP Calculus exam—1 out of 5—evinces.[11]

President Obama wants to enroll every child in some kind of higher education beyond high school:

I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.[12]

The results of NCLB have demonstrated that not every child can be made proficient (above average); similarly, not every child can be made ready to do college-level work. Felicitously, for the CCSS the two consortia preparing assessments of college readiness recognize that every child will not be at a level by Grade 11 to succeed in college. The consortia each include, in proposed student assessments, levels of “partial” or “minimal” command of the necessary skills for college and career readiness.[13]

And not every child needs to attend college to earn a decent living, which I argued in Capitalism and Western Civilization: Opportunity. There I highlighted studies by Harvard economist Richard J. Murnane and MIT colleague Frank Levy, included in Teaching the New Basic Skills, and by Richard W. Judy and Carol D’Amico for the Hudson Institute, in Workforce 2020: Work and Workers in the 21st Century. The studies found independently that college is neither the desirable nor necessary ticket to the future for many students—even in today’s changing and more demanding economy.

Murnane and Levy found that the difference in wage outcomes between college and high school graduates was small for those who learned the right skills in high school and large for those who did not. This was confirmed by other statistics which showed that growing income inequality among groups of workers of similar sex, age, and schooling was explained by differences in their learned skills.[14]

The Hudson Institute report reached the same conclusion:

The Workforce 2020 team documents the compensation and mobility benefits of higher education, but we part company with those who would create an entitlement to two (or more) years of college. College cannot remedy the deficiencies of primary and secondary education. Nor is it an appropriate path for many prospective workers, who would be better served by solid vocational training. The crucial factor accounting for long-term success in the workforce is a basic education provided at the primary and secondary levels—encompassing the ability to read and write, do basic math, solve problems, and behave dependably.[15]

Those skills are the very ones that the CCSS seek to impart to high school graduates.

Hopefully, states have learned the lesson of NCLB and will maintain the college and career readiness requirements of the CCSS that will provide equal opportunity to all students while accepting the reality that many will simply be far better prepared to succeed in a life of work after high school—a balanced national outcome properly to be expected from a high level of shared education.

The next article will address the charge that the CCSS will produce only “cogs for the economic machine.”


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).


[1] National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, U. S. Department of Education, 26 April 1983.

[3] The Condition of College & Career Readiness: National, ACT, 2012.

[5] The Future Ready Project, What Does College- and Career-Ready Really Mean? Achieve, Inc., 2012.

[7] Ron Haskins, Richard Murnane, Isabel V. Sawhill, and Catherine Snow, Can Academic Standards Boost Literacy and Close the Achievement Gap? Brookings Institution, 2 October 2012.

[8] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “It’s Time to Abandon the Status Quo,” Core Knowledge Foundation,, 4 February 2013.

[9] R. James Milgram, Testimony Before the Texas Legislature,  17 April 2011.

[10] Hung-Hsi Wu, “To Accelerate, or Not,” The Huffington Post, 20 September 2012.

[11] Jason Zimba, “Critics’ Math Doesn’t Add Up,”, Fordham Institute, 2 August 2013.

[13] Initial Achievement Level Descriptors and College Content-Readiness Policy, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, 26 April 2013. “PARCC Releases Final Grade- and Subject-Specific PLDs,” Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, 17 July 2013.

[14] Richard J. Murnane and  Frank Levy, Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

[15] Richard W. Judy and Carol D’Amico, Workforce 2020: Work and Workers in the 21st Century, Hudson Institute, 1997.

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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