A new, tougher common core for all grades and subjects in schools across the country will soon get its first testing in Oklahoma, but young Durant students are well ahead of the curve — working with the new Common Core Standards since September.
DISD Superintendent Jason Simeroth says, “We wanted to get started on it so we introduced it in all classes from kindergarten through third grade, and so far it’s going well.” It’s too soon to measure its impact on reading and writing, but he said the students are writing more.
The new core puts increased emphasis on writing across the curriculum and intensified teaching of critical thinking. A sampling of tests tied to the core will be offered in a few Oklahoma schools this spring but probably not in Bryan County. However, selection of schools for this sampling has not been completed. Working the new core into the curriculum while still preparing students for the current PASS tests has been difficult but, Simeroth says, “there’s evidence that if we do a good job of adding in the new core the students will be well prepared for the last tests of PASS (Priority Academic Student Skills).” Those tests will be given through this school year and next, but scores this school year and next won’t count toward students’ final grades. Beginning in September 2014, the tests on the new common core will replace all current Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) tests, and the scores will count.
Creation of the new core was launched by two organizations, the National Governors Association and Chief State School Officers. Two consortiums received federal funding to create assessments to measure student performance on the tests. One is PARCC — Partnerships for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The other is the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Oklahoma is one of 22 states that adopted the PARCC assessment standards, while 44 states committed to Smarter Balanced. Texas and three other states didn’t adopt either one, but states can join in, drop out or switch commitments up until the tests are formally implemented.
The standards were published in 2010 and will be fully implemented in the 46 states in September 2014. The new standards can be found on the Oklahoma Department of Education Website at http://ok.gov/sde/Oklahoma-C3-Standards. In areas without new standards, the PASS standards will remain. Examples and other information on the standards can also be found at www.parcconline.org/samples/items-tasks-prototypes.
The standards are set but content and timing of the assessments are still being worked on by both consortiums, said Chad Colby, communications director for Achieve, the company that is overall project manager for the new core. He said staff members from each assessment group have been working together to reach “comparability” of the assessment measures to bring conformity to the national standards and tests. The state goal is to ensure that every child in America has an equal opportunity for a quality education. A standardized core will also make it easier for students to transfer to new districts in or out of state, but there will still be room for tailoring to local needs. Only Oklahoma students, for example, will have to take Oklahoma history. Some critics fear a weakening of state control over the schools. Oklahoma state Rep. Sally Kern argues that PARCC and Smarter Balanced are part of a federal government effort to erode local school board control and undermine laws that give educational authority to the states. She urged the Legislature to withdraw its commitment to PARCC but has found little support for that move.
Oklahoma State Superintendent of Education Janet Barresi disagrees with Kern, lauding the new core particularly because, she said, it “addresses content and development of cognitive skills.“ Baressi said these skills, critical thinking and analysis, are sorely missing from Oklahoma’s current PASS standards.
The current standards are “a mile wide and an inch deep,“ she said, adding that the new standards allow teachers to add depth to a student’s knowledge while covering the key content areas. As an example, she said, current standards require students to memorize and regurgitate the Gettysburg Address. Under the new core, she said, a teacher could spend three days discussing events that preceded Lincoln’s speech, the context of the time, and the significance of his words.
Others have noted the new standards favor deeper analysis over rote memorization in many fields, in part through more intensive questioning by teachers. At a conference last year on educational changes, a University of Alabama professor said that teachers will have to “shift from being givers of knowledge to facilitators of critical thinking.”
The first sampling tests this spring represent an initial response to critic complaints that the standards and assessments have not been field tested. The consortiums each have both academic and technology standards, and representatives of each group have been meeting frequently to bring their standards as close together as possible. Durant’s technology already meets the technology requirements, Superintendent Simeroth said in a Daily Democrat interview. He noted that laptops are available for all students from 7th grade up, while lower grades provide small computers.
The new core requires greater emphasis by teachers on critical thinking, and also on writing across the curriculum by including writing elements in work done in all classes.
Durant ISD Assistant Superintendent Larry Scott pointed out how essential reading and writing are for all fields. Students having problems in math classes, for example, often struggle more with the language of math problems than with numbers problems, he said. The push for writing across the curriculum, meaning in classes in all subjects, occasionally worries teachers of non-English classes. They fear that their unfamiliarity with evaluation of writing may diminish evaluations of their teaching. Scott said they shouldn’t worry. Students writing for a science class, for instance, will be writing about scientific matters, and science teachers certainly will be able to evaluate how well they do so, he said.
Understanding and writing in the language of each of the disciplines is a key goal in the new core.
The critical-thinking and writing requirements put increased pressure not just on teachers and school administrators but on teacher education programs at colleges around the state. Dr. Maridyth McBee said in a Daily Democrat phone interview, “We’re telling them (teacher education programs) what’s coming down but we haven’t yet learned how to teach poor students.” McBee, assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment, told the Democrat, “Our biggest challenge is teaching students growing up in poverty.” Responses varied considerably when teacher-ed professors were asked about the impact of the new requirements particularly on critical-thinking instruction and writing across the curriculum. One program director said, “Our faculty members have been doing these things all along so I just don’t see a need for changes in our program.”
Others, however, said common core demands are indeed being integrated into methods and other education classes.
Dr. Lawrence Baines, chair of the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum, said common core material has been integrated in the curriculum and the students are staying abreast of common core development. However, he said, “They know it’s just the latest policy in the context of a hundred years of policies mandated for public schools.”
Simeroth, disagreeing, said, “This is very big. This is a dramatic change,” and he is pleased by it. He said he “favors a national curriculum.”
Colby, of Achieve, says it appears likely there will be four or five assessments a year, with two being optional. Diagnostic tests at the start of the school year will give teachers a handle on the students’ abilities. One more test in the fall and then two in the spring plus a final will probably be established, he said.
OU’s Baines said he is particularly concerned over whether essay writing would be part of the tests and whether the tests would be “performance based.” His example of a performance-based test: a student might have to “write an essay on the spot, then read it aloud to a panel of experts, who would evaluate both the content and the oral delivery of the material.”
McBee said writing will indeed be included in all the tests.