OLD SAYBROOK - No more racing to get through every textbook chapter before the school year ends-lingering on key topics will be the new norm. The Common Core is here.
Starting this fall, most Connecticut school districts will change how they deliver content and assess students in language arts and mathematics. Depth of understanding, rather than breadth, will be the new learning focus. (See "On the Front Lines" on page 20 for two teachers' take on the changes.)
And facts won't just be regurgitated on tests. Instead, students will use facts, skills, and information to solve complex, multi-step problems, and they'll be reading multiple sources about a topic before writing an essay or argument about it.
Teaching and learning to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will challenge both teachers and students. The new curriculum and content units are rigorous. The assessments include multi-step performance tasks requiring students to apply their knowledge and to synthesize information they've learned.
It also means that the state's Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMTs) and Connecticut Academic Performance Tests (CAPT) are out and a new multi-state student assessment series based on Common Core is in. The new Smarter Balanced Assessments will be administered to students in 25 states starting in the spring of 2015.
With the CCSS shifting the teaching of specific math skills into lower grade levels and new approaches to content delivery and assessment, school districts are scrambling to get prepared. Will they be ready?
CCSS: the New Norm
The CCSS were the result of a national effort called the Common Core Initiative led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Teachers and educational experts from throughout the country were involved in developing the standards for each subject area. To date, 48 states, the District of Columbia, and two territories have signed on to the Common Core.
Connecticut's shift to the national Common Core State Standards from older standards was formalized by a 2010 vote of the State Board of Education. Adopted were the Common Core standards for English/language arts and for mathematics (visit www.corestandards.org for more information).
The board also voted to join a 25-state Common Core student assessment consortium. This organization is now developing a computer-adaptive assessment series based on the Common Core standards for each grade level.
This move from educational standards developed by states and school districts to a new national norm is not a move that's been popular with everyone.
Some conservative groups have begun complaining that the move to adopt national Common Core standards intrudes on the principle of local control of education. Some teachers say that the new standards increase the pressure on them to teach to the test and thereby ignore other valuable subject areas and learning experiences.
School administrators worry about the transition to Common Core teaching, learning, and assessments. Will the curriculum be re-written in time? Will teachers be ready to teach new content units at different grade levels and ready to apply the new Common Core approach? Will students be prepared to tackle the complex multi-part performance tasks that they will see on the computer-based Smarter Balanced Assessments?
School boards complain that the shift to the Common Core standards, while valuable, is a huge undertaking that the state has mandated-but not funded.
For the state's 150-plus school districts, the spring 2015 administration of the Smarter Balance Assessment is a date by which their staff and students must be ready. So at least in Connecticut, all eyes are on this milestone: Will students and staff be ready?
To answer this question, we tapped the experts in one district, Old Saybrook, where administrators, subject specialists in math and reading, and teachers have been preparing for the Common Core transition for nearly two years.
What's Changing? A Few Examples
To convert to Common Core teaching, staff specialists and teachers face many tasks. Curriculum and content units must be rewritten. Teachers must be trained to deliver content in new ways and certain math skills in new grades. Skill assessments must be developed that measure how well students are learning, and finally, students must be prepared to take the new multi-state tests on a computer instead of with paper and pencil.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Heston Sutman offered a mathematics example of the type of performance tasks students will face on the new Smarter Balanced Assessment.
"In the past, we may have had one section of the state assessment where students calculate area, another for calculations of perimeter, and another, a word problem dealing with scheduling. A new Smarter Balanced Assessment performance task would require students to apply all of those skills in one task," said Sutman.
One example of such a task might be to plan a garden. Students would be given information like the dimensions of the planting area, a project budget, the cost of each plant, the required minimum distance between each planting row, and be asked to apply their knowledge to develop a garden plan that would not exceed the given budget.
Instead of rote skills, the new SBA questions and tasks will ask students to apply and synthesize information they've learned to prove a deeper level of understanding.
A language arts performance task would also have multiple parts and require application of knowledge. A student might have to read articles with different perspectives on a topic and be asked to take notes on each. Then they would view a video about the same topic and again be asked to take notes. Finally, the student would be asked to write an argument paper about the topic, synthesizing all of the information they've learned.
In another change, the SBA's multiple choice questions will no longer have just one correct answer.
Despite the challenges of moving to the Common Core approach to teaching and learning, Sutman believes the shift will increase curriculum rigor and will benefit students.
"If we set high expectations for students, they can achieve them," said Sutman.
For more information about common core standards, go to www.commoncoreworks.org.