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Norwich - More than 120 teachers, superintendents, parents and community members gathered at The Spa at Norwich Inn for a Saturday school session on the Common Core State Standards, a new set of academic standards in English language arts and mathematics adopted by Connecticut and 44 other states nationwide.
The daylong session, sponsored by the Connecticut Education Association, included an overview of the standards for parents and community members, and a workshop for educators on aligning the standards to classroom activities and curriculum.
"It is the core of your academic training," said Don Romoser, president of the Connecticut Parent Teacher Student Association, an organization that supports the new standards. "You can add to that core, but this is the core of what our kids need to know. It makes sure our students are ready for the 21st century."
The standards, Romoser said, represent what students will be learning, not how the students will be taught. The job of building a curriculum around the standards is up to individual districts.
The State Board of Education voted unanimously in July 2010 to adopt the Common Core. So far, 45 states have adopted the uniform set of benchmarks. Previously, each state developed its own academic criterion.
"We had state-by-state standards, so someone in Oklahoma may not be learning the same thing as someone in Massachusetts in fourth grade," Romoser said. "It could be completely different."
Romoser said that the different standards acted as "a barrier to collaboration" between teachers, administrations and school districts.
"Part of this is bringing the standards together so a teacher in California could work with a teacher in New York to find the best way to teach a certain topic," he said. "The people who put the Common Core standards together believe that will make a significant difference."
The event also featured a demonstration of the new Smarter Balanced Assessment test, which Connecticut will use to evaluate progress in students in grades 3 to 8 as well as in 11th grade.
Delanna Muse, of New London Parent Advocates and a former New London Board of Education vice president, said seeing test questions exactly as students will see them gave her a better understanding of the exam.
"I think it's needed so parents can get a general idea of what their students will be facing," she said.
"The more students and parents can work together, the better prepared the students will be for the test," Muse said.
Some participants said Saturday they don't support the Common Core standards because they feel like the standards are being thrust upon school districts without enough evidence that they will actually improve student learning.
"Every parent in this room is wholeheartedly in support of education, that's why we're here," said Kimberly Grustas, a parent of two schoolchildren in New Hartford. "But show me that this actually makes a difference in my child's education. Had we been told that this system had truly been vetted, this would be a room of advocates for this change."
Earlier this year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy designated a group of teachers and educators from across the state to make recommendations on the state's implementation of the Common Core. He also proposed scaling back some aspects of a new teacher evaluation system - which would tie student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluations - in order to give school districts time to adjust to the Common Core standards.
Some who oppose the Common Core initiatives say they are also worried about the costs associated with the development of curriculum around the Common Core and the rollout of the new set of standards.
"First, is Common Core right for our students? Second, is Common Core right for our teachers?," said Norbert Fay, a member of Shoreline Conservatives/Independents of Waterford. "The third concern is, can we afford it if it is right for our students and teachers?"
Supporters of the new academic benchmarks say the implementation of the standards will not be easy but will ultimately benefit students.
"This is a dramatic shift in education, and change can sometimes be a struggle," Romoser said. "It is going to be hard."
To take a Smarter Balanced practice test, visit sbac.portal.airast.org/practice-test.