By Frank Wells
A major shift in literacy emphasis and a stronger balance between mathematics procedural knowledge and understanding are key components of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). California will begin fully implementing assessments in the 2014-15 school year. The state is preparing for the transition and many districts are already gearing up, so CTA members are advised to become familiar with the coming changes now.
The new standards were developed based in part on work already done at the state level (California and Massachusetts were models), and were designed to meet college and career readiness standards adopted in 2009. Most states have adopted the CCSS, with only Virginia, Texas, Alaska, Nebraska and Minnesota not participating.
Developed through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with feedback from states, teachers, higher education, and the general public, the final standards were released on June 2, 2010. The California State Board of Education (SBE) adopted the standards with additions of its own two months later.
Aligning to college and workplace expectations, the new standards were based on evidence and research, include rigorous content and knowledge application though higher level skills, and are internationally benchmarked to prepare students to succeed in a global economy. College and career readiness are the overall focus even at the earliest grade levels.
While adopting 100 percent of the national standards, the SBE added an additional 15 percent that are specific to California. The language arts additions include formal presentations at all grade levels and penmanship in grades 2-4. Additional math requirements include probability and statistics, operations and algebraic thinking in grades 2-5, and shifts in grade level introductions to math concepts, moving some subjects earlier and others later. In January, the SBE voted to eliminate California’s controversial additional algebra requirement for eighth-graders, although students ready for that subject may still be able to take it.
With that in mind, the new English-language arts standards are significantly different, shifting to a much greater focus on informational text. Currently only 15 percent of text in elementary school is informational, yet that makes up 80 percent of the reading done in college and the workforce. Informational text is harder to understand, and students who haven’t had enough experience with it run into problems after graduating.
The new standards will shift the informational/narrative percentages to 50/50 at the elementary level, 60/40 in middle school, and 75/25 in high school.
How students respond to text-based questions will also change, as there will be greater emphasis on providing evidence from reading to support their answers. Rather than simply being asked how they feel about what they have read or how an issue in the reading relates to their own lives, students will be pressed to present arguments justified by the text they have read.
For example, after reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” under current practices students might be asked to write “about a time you felt something was unfair.” More text-dependent questioning might ask, “What can you infer from King’s letter about the letter he received?” The language standards also emphasize vocabulary development and collaborative discussion.
Common Core and testing
Although the specific content and assessment practices may be changing, what is generally measured and when remains governed by current No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top requirements. Students will be tested in both English-language arts and math in grades 3-8, and at least once in each subject area in grades 10-12.
Although most in the education community are supportive of the common national standards, they are not completely without controversy. As mentioned, five states have not adopted them. Some educators lament what they call a “one-size-fits-all” approach, a criticism also leveled against No Child Left Behind (NCLB), while others criticize what they see as a further shift away from local control.
Most, however, view the move to the new standards as very positive, even necessary, and the initiative has received widespread support from leading education and business leaders. NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen praised the initiative: “These standards have the potential to support teachers in achieving NEA’s purpose of preparing students to thrive in a democratic society and a diverse, changing world as knowledgeable, creative and engaged citizens and lifelong learners.”
Still, at least one aspect of the new assessments leaves some educators apprehensive. Moving from what are largely fill-in-the-bubble-style tests to computer or tablet based assessment assumes students are computer literate, and that’s not always the case. Scott Wells is a computer lab teacher in Long Beach Unified, a district involved in piloting the new standards. Of a recent field test of the new assessment system he reports, “A lot of kids spent most of the time trying to find the right letters on the keyboard.” He wonders if it makes sense to test students who can’t yet type fluently in this way.
Other limitations of the new standards are by design. The CCSS do not define how teachers should teach, all that can or should be taught, or the nature of advanced work beyond the core. They do not prescribe interventions for students below grade level, the full range of support for students with special needs and English language learners, or even everything needed to be “college and career ready.”
CTA can help
CTA members can take steps now to be better prepared when the new standards are implemented. School staff should familiarize themselves with the new expectations of the CCSS. Grade level and subject area teams can start looking for areas of strength and alignment between current standards and the new ones. Teachers are also encouraged to look for gaps in knowledge and skills students will need to overcome to do well under the new system. Familiarity and preparedness now will help ease the transition to what could prove to be a powerful new opportunity for America’s students and teachers.
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