The Anatomy of a Common Core Math Standard

Posted by Zack Blois on Jan 2, 2014 2:20:00 PM
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Let's be honest, learning standards are not the most engaging reading material in the world. But, because these standards often represent the essential blueprint of instruction, they are a necessary piece of the overall learning ecosystem.

Following that logic, it's probably important that we can read and interpret the standards, right?

Now don't roll your eyes all at once! The answer is obviously "yes", and that's why I wanted to put this quick blog post together. The Common Core math standards are written in a unique format and interpreting the new standards correctly goes a long way toward understanding the required topics, skills, and concepts.

The Common Core Math Standard breakdown

First, let's take a look at one of these new math standards. Below, you will see a breakdown for standard CCSS.Math.Content.3.NBT.A.1:


After looking at that image, you may find yourself asking, "What is a Domain?" or "What is a Cluster?" If so, fear not. This blog post is just for you!

Read below the break to see a step-by-step breakdown of the Common Core math standard and to learn why it is important to have a solid understanding of each element!

The Standard

For simplicity's sake, let's start with the most granular piece, the individual standard, and work our way "up". In CCSS notation, the individual standard is represented by a number at the end of the decimal string. In our example, you'll notice that the individual standard is denoted by the "1" at the end of CCSS.Math.Content.3.NBT.A.1.


The individual math standard serves as the basic unit of the Common Core math standards. Per the Common Core folks, each standard outlines one specific skill/concept that a student needs to know how to perform in order to be "college and career ready". The individual standard's grade level is identified by finding the number that follows "CCSS.Math.Content". In essence, our example standard says that the student should be able to "Use place value understanding to round whole numbers to the nearest 10 or 100" by the end of third grade.

The individual math standards range from kindergarten to high school math and most of them are related to each other or build on top of each other (as math tends to be an interrelated subject). With that being said, the framers of the Common Core State Standards make a strong point to note that the standards are not a pacing guide, and the teacher still maintains flexibility over when and how the standards are taught within the curriculum.

The Cluster

As you know, there are many individual math standards in the Common Core. That's where clusters come in!

Individual standards that are closely related to one another are organized into a cluster and headed by a shared explanatory phrase. In notation, the cluster is represented by a letter in the second-to-last place in the decimal string. For example, the cluster of CCSS.Math.Content.3.NBT.A.1, is represented by "A".


In the case of CCSS.Math.Content.3.NBT.A.1, the explanatory phrase is “Use place value understanding and properties of operations to perform multi-digit arithmetic”. As you'll notice, there are two additional individual standards that fall under our example cluster that share the cluster notation of "A":

  • CCSS.Math.Content.3.NBT.A.2
  • CCSS.Math.Content.3.NBT.A.3 

In this instance, the three individual standards serve as the scaffolding skills/concepts needed for students to be able to meet the cluster's learning goal.

Be advised, clusters are grade level-specific (i.e. CCSS.Math.Content.3.NBT.A is only found in the Grade 3 standards). However, a similar cluster may be found in the next grade level(s), and the similar cluster often builds on what was learned in the previous grade.

The Domain

Finally, the standard clusters are placed into an overarching domain. The domain helps organize standards across different grade levels into concept "buckets".

The domain of an individual standard/cluster is denoted by the grade level and a series of abbreviations. In our example standard, the domain of CCSS.Math.Content.3.NBT.A is "3.NBT", which stands for the grouping of "Number & Operations in Base Ten" standards in Grade 3.


If you go to the CCSS's domain page for “Numbers and Operations in Base Ten, you'll notice that the same domain stretches from Kindergarten to Grade 5. The key is to take note of what number (or letter, in the case of the Kindergarten standards) exists before the domain abbreviation. 

There are 11 total domains in the whole of the Common Core math standards. These domains include (followed by their abbreviations):

More Common Core Math Resources from Wowzers

I hope this breakdown of the Common Core math standards was helpful and useful! If you'd like to learn more about the Common Core standards, be sure to check out the rest of the helpful CCSS math posts found on the Wowzers Blog.

  • Want to see how the Wowzers Online Math content can help you integrate the Common Core math standards into your curriculum and lesson plans? Be sure to check out this quick 35-second video for more info!

Also, if you have any questions or comments related to Wowzers or this blog post, be sure to reach out to us via our Facebook page or tweet us at @Wowzers!

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CCSS Content eBooklet download link

Topics: Common Core Content

Wowzers is a comprehensive online math program covering all Common Core State Standards for grades K-8. The research-based program adapts to each learner and allows for an individualized path through the curriculum. Content is presented in multiple ways, and appeals to tactile, auditory, and visual learners. Assessments mirror those found on high-stakes achievement tests and provide teachers and administrators with the information that they need to personalize learning for each student.

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