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Why 2015 is a crucial year for Common Core

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 fight over the Common Core, language arts and math standards in place in 43 states, quieted down slightly in late 2014. But the lull won't last long. This spring, hundreds of thousands of students will be tested against the standards for the first time. How those students fare, and how parents and teachers react, will be crucial to the Common Core's future.

And when the test results come in, they probably won't be good.

Why students are going to get lower scores on Common Core tests

The Common Core expects students to read more challenging material, and it asks them harder questions.

In New York and Kentucky, two states that adopted Common Core tests early, the percentage of students considered proficient in reading and math plummeted. In New York, about two-thirds of students were proficient on both on pre-Common Core tests; after the new tests were introduced, fewer than one-third were considered proficient.

Results in Kentucky were similar. And the same thing is likely to happen nationally. Seventeen states worked together on a new standardized test as part of a coalition called Smarter Balanced. In November, Smarter Balanced predicted that less than half of students will be considered proficient in reading and math this year.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan characterized opposition to Common Core in November 2013 as driven by "white suburban moms" upset that "their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought." He later apologized. But when he said that, just two states had actually taken Common Core tests and seen scores fall.

This year, 39 more states will join them. This will change the political calculus around Common Core. In If parents are personally angry, the new standards could become even more unpopular. In September, about 35 percent of public school parents said they have a negative opinion of the Common Core, and an additional 32 percent had no opinion or hadn't heard of it.

How teachers and parents might react to lower Common Core test scores

The reaction to lower test scores has varied hugely by location, at least in the two states that have so far implemented the new tests.

One state, Kentucky, weathered the initial poor scores without much backlash. But in New York. the lower scores kicked off opposition so intense that "Stop Common Core" was a ballot line in the state's election this fall. Town halls in the suburbs featured impassioned yelling that would rival a Tea Party anti-Common Core rally.

Kentucky avoided the backlash in several ways, including laying the groundwork for low test scores by reassuring parents that they were expected and would later increase. But Kentucky also benefited from starting the Common Core tests before the issue became a political lighting rod, and didn't base teachers' professional evaluations on test scores.

Many states haven't been preparing parents for lower test scores this year. And in most states, teacher evaluations will eventually be based on students' test scores. That means the stakes are higher for teachers — and in some cases they're higher for students, too, because the tests could eventually be used in deciding whether students advance to the next grade.

If lower scores lead to an anti-Common Core backlash, it could add fuel for legislators who want to replace the standards. It could also complicate the presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. And it could shake up the coalition that opposes Common Core, adding more middle-of-the-road suburban voters to the Tea Partiers and progressives who are already dubious about the standards.

Controversy probably wouldn't mean that states replace the standards entirely — other states that have tried to do so, including Indiana, have learned it's easier said than done. But 2015 could be the year that political controversy over Common Core is revived, and with a different coalition of opponents this time.

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