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3 reasons Common Core is especially controversial in New York

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The states where the Common Core has been most controversial are generally bright red. The two states that dumped the standards altogether — Oklahoma and Indiana — had Republican-dominated legislatures.

But there's one exception: New York, where the Common Core became so controversial that Gov. Andrew Cuomo cited it as a huge issue in this fall's gubernatorial election. Last year, hundreds of parents showed up at forums to yell at the state's top education official. This year, "Stop Common Core" was created as a ballot line, meaning the issue will linger politically for years to come.

Here's how the Common Core got so controversial in New York, and what the ongoing controversy means for the standards' future.

New York was an early adopter of Common Core tests

standardized tests


New, harder tests are a big part of the reason the Common Core has been controversial in New York. (Shutterstock)

New York adopted the new standards for math and language arts at the same time as many other states, in summer 2010. They moved more quickly than the rest of the country, though, on testing students on whether they could meet the standards.

Most states won't use the Common Core standards as the basis for state tests in math and language arts until next spring, more than four years after the standards were initially adopted. New York, on the other hand, put the standards in place right away and began testing students in 2013.

Test scores dropped dramatically. In 2012, before the Common Core exams were put in place, 55 percent of third through eighth graders statewide tested as proficient in reading, and 65 percent were proficient in math. The Common Core-aligned exams in 2013 halved those passing rates. Just 31 percent of students statewide were classified as proficient in reading, and 31 percent in math.

State officials had warned that the test scores in 2013 would be lower, but the dramatic drop kicked off an outcry among parents, as well as among some teachers and principals who said they didn't have enough time or resources to prepare students for the tests. In the months after the test scores were released, New York's top education official, John King, took a listening tour of the state to hear from parents and students. He got an earful, both about the standards and about a state plan to share student data with a third-party vendor. When King tried to respond to critics' concerns in Poughkeepsie, the audience shouted him down.

Why lower test scores were so much more controversial in New York than in Kentucky

Andrew cuomo

The backlash against the standards became a big issue for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Shutterstock)

New York wasn't the only state to see test scores drop once tests were aligned to Common Core. Kentucky, the earliest adopter, did too. But while Common Core implementation in New York spiraled into recriminations, Kentucky has remained a poster child for the standards – and is seeing its scores slowly rise.

But Kentucky and New York differed in key ways.

First, the year between Kentucky's first Common Core tests and New York's was significant. When Kentucky's first batch of low scores came out in 2012, the Common Core hadn't yet become a flash point for the Tea Party. By the time New York's scores were released, Common Core was already blowing up as a political issue.

Second, New York was implementing several different reforms at once, including new teacher evaluation systems. Those evaluations increased the number of tests that students were taking. They also meant that the Common Core had high stakes for teachers, because pay, hiring, and promotion decisions will eventually hinge on how their students perform on standardized tests.

Kentucky hasn't linked student test scores to teacher evaluation, which has allowed it to sidestep some of the controversy that has been a hallmark of Common Core implementation elsewhere — including in New York, where the teachers union voted no confidence in the standards in January.

Third, New York is both a hot spot in the education debate and the center of the media universe. It's possible that kids in Kentucky struggled with the harder tests in their first year and came home upset, complaining of anxious stomachs and other symptoms of what some people dubbed "Common Core syndrome." But those concerns weren't reported in the New York Times, as they were in New York. New York has also been at the center of multiple fights over education reform and is the home of prominent reform critics. That means there were skeptics who were front and center in the Common Core debate early on.

All this means Kentucky's public relations effort was more effective. Kentucky started preparing parents for lower scores a year before they were released. The state used an analysis of ACT results to predict that they could fall by as much as 36 percentage points. While New York tried to warn parents in advance too, the public relations effort wasn't as comprehensive as Kentucky's, nor did it start as early.

'Stop Common Core' lost. Will the controversy continue?

New York sample ballot

Part of a sample ballot in New York, where "Stop Common Core" gained ballot access for the next four years.

The Common Core is so controversial in New York that it became a major issue in the gubernatorial election. Republican nominee Rob Astorino and the state Republican Party created a third ballot line, "Stop Common Core," hoping to harness anger about the standards to help their campaign. Cuomo tacked away from the standards, promising to wait five years to use test scores punitively, and then "only if our children are ready."

Astorino lost. But he got enough votes on the Stop Common Core party line that it will get an automatic spot on the ballot for the next four years.

The question is how long the Common Core will remain a potent political issue. Cuomo's victory means the standards themselves are here to stay, even if the state becomes less aggressive about implementation. And of the two states that have successfully dumped the Common Core, Indiana and Oklahoma, Indiana ended up adopting new standards that look a lot like the Common Core.

On the other hand, New York's experience could be a prequel for similar outcries in other states, once scores on Common Core-aligned tests start to roll in this summer. Parents in other states are protesting the number of standardized tests that students are starting to take. It's possible that, far from being an outlier, New York is just on the vanguard of how they will react to the lower scores.

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