The first countrywide assessment of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will take place during the 2014-15 school year. The once popular standards have now come under fierce attack. Critics on the left are concerned about protecting public education from corporate interests, as private companies stand to profit from the CCSS materials and assessments. Opponents on the right fear the federal government usurping local control of the schools. And skeptics across the political spectrum worry about the effects of “testing fatigue” on children, the fairness of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and the risk of quashing creativity through an overemphasis on standardized modes of thinking.
For this Front Porch article, we wanted to go beyond the politically charged national controversy and glean a deeper understanding of the CCSS and their impact on our neighborhood schools. So we turned to area experts. We spoke with State Sen. Mike Johnston (D-Denver) and convened a discussion group consisting of Denver School Board member Landri Taylor (District 4), principals Marcia Fulton (Odyssey), Liz Tencate (Swigert), Jill Corcoran (Westerly Creek); and fifth-grade math, science, and social studies teacher Marie Gruber (Westerly Creek). Our conversations revealed not only the complexity of and the controversy surrounding the CCSS, but also the promise this educational revolution holds for students.
What are the CCSS?
The CCSS represent a major shift in our nation’s educational policy. Public school standards and assessments have historically been developed and administered at the district and state level. By contrast, the CCSS are an effort to create what Sen. Johnston refers to as 21st century thinking skills through rigorous shared standards. Instead of each state setting its own standards and “speaking 50 different languages,” explains Johnston, a shared set of standards will enable educators across the country to share materials, lesson plans and best practices.
What’s more, a shared set of national standards seeks to repair what Johnston refers to as “broken parts of the standards movement.” He says that since past federal programs like No Child Left Behind sought to preserve local control of education by enabling states to set their own standards, there was no safeguard against a so-called “race to the bottom”—wherein states set their standards low enough to ensure a majority of students met or exceeded them. While this strategy engenders impressive statistics, it fails children in the long run. A lack of accountability has left many American youth unprepared for college and less competitive in the increasingly global marketplace.
To remedy these pressing problems, the developers of the CCSS state they have drawn on “the most important international models as well as research and input from numerous sources, including state departments of education, scholars, assessment developers, professional organizations, educators from kindergarten through college, and parents, students, and other members of the public.” Based upon this research, the CCSS initiative—spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association—created a set of learning objectives they tout as:
- Research and evidence based
- Clear, understandable, and consistent
- Aligned with college and career expectations
- Based on rigorous content and the application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills
- Built upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards
- Informed by other top-performing countries to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society
The standards are objectives, not a specified curriculum, for the subject areas of math and English language arts/literacy. They emphasize higher order, critical thinking and active engagement with learning. For example, a set of literacy standards intended to instill the “integration of knowledge and ideas” builds from kindergarten through second grade in the following manner:
Kindergarten: “With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the text in which they appear (e.g., what person, place, thing, or idea in the text an illustration depicts).”
First Grade: “Use the illustrations and details in a text to describe its key ideas.”
Second Grade: “Explain how specific images (e.g., a diagram showing how a machine works) contribute to and clarify a text.” (www.corestandards.org).
How are the standards influencing our neighborhood schools?
Colorado joined the CCSS Initiative in 2010. The State Board of Education then gave districts a deadline of the 2014-15 school year to fully adopt the standards. Schools in our area have been using this time to realign their curricula, which has been no easy task. Tencate explains that while she found the CCSS general enough to complement the International Baccalaureate program Swigert features, there was still a significant jump; “the new standards are higher” than past grade-level objectives at the school she leads.
Gruber concurs, noting that the “biggest gap was in math.” Gruber estimates that there is a “one-year gap” between the previous state standards and the new CCSS. Fulton describes the weekly teacher trainings, the revamping of expeditions, and the complete reorientation of how kids are expected to think and to explain their thinking that the integration of CCSS required at Odyssey. “It’s good learning; it’s big work!” Fulton said, eliciting vigorous nods of agreement from the educators in the room like Gruber, who describes waking up at 4am daily to prepare for class in a manner that best supports her students’ acquisition of the skills necessary to succeed on the new assessments.
Corcoran recognizes what the implementation of these new standards is asking of the staff she leads. “It requires a lot of time,” she says as she explains her process of coordinating release days with teachers prior to new units so they can compare the new standards to the existing DPS curriculum and create fresh lesson plans and strategies for educating their students.
Despite the learning curve, the hard work, and the long hours, the educators we spoke with believed the standards are good, that they will prepare students for college, career and life and that students will rise to the occasion. Fulton shares how gratifying it is to see “kids’ light bulbs go off” when they began to grasp the higher order thinking. With similar enthusiasm, Gruber acknowledges that in the absence of a canned curriculum, “teachers are being given greater trust and flexibility,” which she finds exciting. Parents too, suggests Corcoran, are ready for their kids to be challenged by the higher standards.
How will the standards be measured?
Since 2010, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of 14 states—of which Colorado is one—has been developing and testing the CCSS assessment. Starting next spring, the PARCC assessment will be administered annually across the nation. Test scores will provide a comparison of student performance and will measure individual student growth. Eventually, the assessment scores will also be considered as part of teacher and school evaluations.
Johnston champions the quick turnaround time of student data promised by PARCC, which seeks to provide “usable data” for educators to evaluate student growth. (Tests will be taken on computers.) Although Fulton agrees that usable data delivered in a timely manner is a potential benefit of the PARCC assessment, she has concerns about testing fatigue among children with the addition of PARCC evaluations to existing district and statewide measures. Corcoran listed a formidable series of exams students at Westerly Creek take each year and Gruber surmised that as much as 30 percent of instruction time is spent preparing for and administering assessments each year.
Johnston admits that the “over-testing” critique is the strongest argument against the CCSS. The Colorado Legislature has recently formed a commission to study the testing requirements, instruction time spent on test administration, the uses of testing data, and ways the district, state and national tests can work together.
Looking at the bigger picture, Taylor wonders if a test is even the best way to measure the outcomes we seek. A proponent of CCSS, Taylor favors consistent objectives across state lines, but is concerned that the standards may not be aligned with the testing. In what Gruber refers to as an increasingly “pay for performance” district, there are serious consequences for using potentially misaligned data to evaluate teachers.
Why the Common Core Matters
While none of the educators in our group opposed the learning objectives promoted by the CCSS Initiative, the forthcoming assessment of those standards is causing anxiety. This “nervousness is understandable,” says Fulton, as the national standards bring with them a “layer of change . . . a nationally normed level of accountability,” the likes of which our country has never before seen.
Even as Fulton understands the anxiety, she celebrates the assessment’s potential. She refers to the CCSS initiative as a “beautiful opportunity to level the playing field.” The assessments, Fulton says, will show us where we must improve, providing a benefit in the short and long term if all kids are served. Johnston agrees, referring to the achievement gap as the animating reason to implement the standards. He contends: “We have to tell hard truths.”
Taylor is cautious, maintaining that it’s too early to speculate about the long-term benefits of this major shift in educational policy. The school board member nevertheless lauds the Common Core’s immediate benefit: “We’re all talking about education,” he says with a smile.
Readers can try out sample PARCC test questions at http://parcconline.org/samples/item-task-prototypes.
How do PARCC questions differ from the tests Colorado has been using? Following are examples of questions that have appeared in Colorado’s tests in the past but are no longer being used. http://www.cde.state.co.us/assessment/coassess-released