Coming to a public school near you – Common Core State Standards
By: Carol Enright
Anyone who has stopped by a local school board meeting recently, or who follows education in the news, has likely heard the term “Common Core,” short for Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In the Show-Me State, they’re called Missouri Core Academic Standards, but what are they?
It’s useful to begin by talking about what they are not. They are not another “No Child Left Behind.” They are not federally mandated and states that do not adopt them are not directly penalized. Although, to compete for federal “Race to the Top” grants, states must demonstrate that they are “adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy.”
The CCSS are state-driven. They were developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Currently, 45 states have signed onto the CCSS, effectively making them the new national standard in public education.
Why Common Core?
The thinking behind the CCSS was that American students are falling behind their international peers in what are commonly called the “21st Century Skills” that students need to be successful in a global economy. The CCSS website (corestandards.org), lists the mission of the new standards as follows:
“The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”
Supporters of the new standards tout the fact that they are internationally benchmarked and designed to ensure that American students exit high school college and career ready.
What are the standards?
The CCSS are a common set of standards in English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12. The standards are more rigorous than most existing state standards and emphasize a deeper understanding of fewer topics. This contrasts to the current curriculum at many public schools, which has been described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
“Common Core is taking a step back and saying, ‘What is important? What are the major things that kids really need to know – and how do we get them a very deep understanding of those subjects before we move on?’” said Sarah Potter, spokeswoman for Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). “It thins out the curriculum quite a bit, but it’s giving those kids a deeper understanding and a solid understanding before they move on to the next challenging task.”
“I think the thought of having time to slow down and teach the essential elements in more depth is something that teachers welcome,” said Suzanne Dotta, president of the Rockwood National Education Association teachers’ union.
Dotta also said teachers will likely embrace the new standards’ emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking. Still, she said the teachers she knows “have suspended judgment” on the new standards until they have a better idea of how they will play out for students and teachers in the classroom.
Science and social studies are not included in the new standards, but these two subject areas will be called on to support the new standards – especially their emphasis on more informational texts and nonfiction in English classes. Some have balked at this shift toward informational texts at the expense of literature in language arts classes, but supporters say these are the types of texts students will have to work with “in the real world.”
“I think we’ve focused for many, many years on a lot of literature, a lot of fiction texts, and, unfortunately, when you get out of school, your boss doesn’t ask you to do a report on your life,” said Potter. “Your boss asks you to look at this data, look at this report and give your reasoning, give your argument. So there won’t be as much fiction. There will be more informational texts.”
Jackie Floyd, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Fort Zumwalt School District, acknowledged that teachers are also questioning the new standards’ focus on informational texts, but Floyd said it’s all a matter of “balance.” She estimates that the typical breakdown in an elementary language arts class is 80 percent fiction to 20 percent nonfiction.
“We’re not going to get rid of all that literature,” said Floyd. “We don’t want to because we do want children to be exposed to good literature pieces, but we’ve got to balance. We’ve got to pull back and create a better balance so that they are being exposed to nonfictional pieces and how to read those in depth and closely and be able to use that information.”
A similar measuring stick
Right now, every state has its own set of academic standards, and Missouri has some of the nation’s highest. This makes it difficult to compare school districts from state to state. CCSS proponents say the program will solve this problem.
“We know that Missouri has really high standards now and other states have not so high standards. And because of that, when they make a list of ‘here’s all the top-performing states,’ it really loses meaning because just because you say a student is proficient in Mississippi how is that similar to or different than a student in Massachusetts? It’s not the same measuring stick,” said Kevin Beckner, coordinator of student assessment for the Parkway School District. “This will give us a similar measuring stick to be able to know what it is that kids are supposed to be able to do.”
The new standards will also make it easier for students who move to another state to transition to a new public school.
“So if I have a third-grader in Illinois and I move to Missouri, my third-grader should be tested and expected to learn the exact same thing. It’s providing that continuity,” said Potter.
Challenges facing schools
Changing curriculum to align with the new standards and training teachers to teach them will be a challenge for public schools – especially since the new tests associated with the standards will replace current MAP tests in the 2014-1015 school year and require considerably different test-taking skills and increased access to technology.
Beckner, however, said it all starts with the curriculum.
“If the curriculum changed because the standards changed, then what happens in the classroom has to change to line up with that,” he said.
Beckner said that although parents might notice their children being asked to perform at a higher level, he doesn’t think students will notice much of a difference.
“An individual student who walks into the classroom won’t necessarily feel the change, because they’re just walking into the classroom for the first time,” said Beckner. “If you compared a third-grader last year to a third-grader this year, that would be a change.”
Floyd said the biggest challenge for her district is training teachers – and finding the time to do so.
“It’s a shift in thinking and practice,” said Floyd, “and so teachers need time to really reflect on that and ask questions. They need examples. ‘How do I make this work?’ So that’s the biggest challenge to schools.”
Hello, Smarter Balanced
New state standards mean a new standardized test. For Missouri, this test is the Smarter Balanced assessment. The biggest difference between the new test and its predecessors is that it is taken entirely online. This means no more filling in bubbles with No. 2 pencils. It also means students will not be able to go back, like they do on a paper test, and check their answers.
“It’s a little bit different in that it’s an adaptive assessment, which means that it starts students out at the grade level they’re classified in and then, in order to give parents and schools more information, it will move with the student as far as the student is demonstrating a level of content knowledge,” said Michael Muenks, coordinator of assessment for DESE. “It will move up, it will stay at grade level, (or) it might move down to easier, lower content to give people an idea of, specifically, what is the student able to do? And that’s a different piece as compared to a fixed-form paper test.”
Muenks said the test is designed so that students who perform poorly in one area are not penalized in others. For example, a student who struggles with multiplication may move down a grade level in that section of the test. But if that same student excels at addition, that student could move up a grade level during that part of the test.
“It’s built on a content-strand backbone, so it looks at different skills at a fairly small level,” Muenks explained. “And just because a student goes down, it doesn’t mean they don’t recover and move back up. In order to move a student up or down, it’s going to take multiple correct or incorrect responses.”
When asked if he thought Missouri’s public schools would be technologically ready to administer the new tests in a couple of years, Muenks said “It’s a moving target.”
Although most districts in the state report “good device readiness,” meaning most school computers are capable of running the tests, Muenks said the challenge will be having the right number of devices at the schools on test days with adequate bandwidth to handle all those students testing at the same time.
“Districts are really working on this,” he said. “They’re very concerned about it, and we’re concerned about it.”
Teaching to a new test?
One critique of standardized tests is that teachers spend too much time “teaching to the test” at the expense of valuable class time for students.
Muenks said if school districts focus on teaching the curriculum that grows out of the new Common Core standards, they won’t need to spend time teaching to the test – because the content they are teaching is what will, ultimately, be tested.
“Teaching to the test isn’t the bad thing,” Muenks explained. “What parents don’t like is when their kids are given these practice tests, ad nauseam, in lieu of the teachers actually teaching.”
When he was a classroom teacher, Muenks said he never had his students practice for standardized tests.
“I figured if I actually taught the kids the content, they knew how to take a test,” he said.
Parkway’s Beckner agreed.
“We’re going to teach the standards. We’re going to make sure that our curriculum is teaching kids what they’re expected to know from the standards,” said Beckner. “But we’re not going through and doing just all this test prep and ‘you have to learn this, because it’s on the test.’”
“I have to trust and believe that the test is measuring the standards that we are supposed to be teaching the students,” echoed Floyd. “So, in my mind, if we teach the standards and we do a good job at that and do what we are supposed to do and the test is measuring – then I guess some people could see that as teaching to the test.
“But the goal is not to teach to the test. The goal is to teach the standards and to make sure our students have met the standards that were adopted by the state of Missouri.”
Everyone agrees that the hoped-for outcome of the new standards is graduating students who are critical problem solvers prepared to take on the challenges they will face in life after high school.
Floyd said she doesn’t believe the new standards are perfect, “but, all in all, we did need to step back and take a look at the changing 21st Century Skills and what that meant for college and career readiness.”
“School shouldn’t be an isolated thing from what we have to do after school,” said Beckner. “When you leave school, it (your experience) should help you actually be successful out in the world. And this will help, I think, get students closer to that.”
As the deadline to have the new standards in place looms, Floyd summed up what all public educators seem to be feeling: “We will get it done, but it’s been kind of a race.”