Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Fuss About the Common Core State Standards

Okay, listen; you may have heard a little about the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which have been adopted by more than 40 American states and territories. Apparently, there's some controversy about it, but it's not a one-sided issue. I'm going to boil it all down for you from my point of view, because people who have kids or grandkids need to understand it, regardless of how they feel about it.

What was wrong with the old standards?  As you may know, American students do not perform as well as many other industrialized nations on academic tests. A huge reason for that, I want you to know, is that other countries cull out disabled students and don’t bother educating them; it’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison, but that’s another post entirely, so we’ll have to table that topic. The fact remains that American academic standards are lower than those of many of our global competitors, and the CCSS aim to raise the bar.

I don't know everything there is to know about the difference between the old and new standards, but as a teacher who’s worked with both in Wisconsin, I can offer an example. An old 6th grade math standard, for example, might require that kids know how to divide, and a test question might present a division problem all set up to be divided, along with multiple choice answers for students to select the solution they got. The new standard (for the same grade level) could instead give a paragraph to read and expect the reader to decide which math process will get them to the correct answer. It will ask students to share their answers and then write explanations for how they arrived at them. The difference is that the new standards expect students to apply what they’ve learned.

Another really clear example is teaching the alphabet to little kids; if a kid can sing his ABCs, that’s charming, but if he doesn’t know what sounds the letters make, it’s just a cute little trick the child can perform, a little song she knows. Teaching kids how to apply what they know helps them prepare for the real world. The current test that Wisconsin uses (WKCE) is loaded with multiple choice questions that require very little higher-level thought; it doesn’t prepare students to be career and college ready in today's world, where innovation and creativity are valued. There are fewer industrial jobs today; innovation, tech and service fields have grown; kids today need to learn how to think if they want to be competitive in today's job market.

There is a state test coming down the pike, called the Smarter Balance assessment (SBA). So far, 25 states will be taking this test, which is not your Iowa Basics or basic, fill-in-the-bubble test that we all know too well. It is an entirely different animal. The SBA was written with the CCSS in mind; it's extremely rigorous, because so are the new standards. The new test is going to demand much greater rigor than you or I ever faced. It's going to blow our kids' minds when it rolls out, because they have gone through traditional schooling, which doesn't really encourage higher-level thinking, processing, collaboration with others, or computer skills. 

In my district, we actually adopted the Common Core three years ago. We have learned that in order to reach the goals of the CCSS, we need to learn to teach differently; to raise kids comfortable with in-depth questions, kids who can think outside-the-box, make mistakes and learn from them, and take responsibility for their own learning. This means that effective teachers have to be comfortable letting go of old-school, cookie-cutter style teaching and learning.  We have been tasked with preparing students to:

*Explain their thinking, not just circle bubbles
*Be comfortable making choices, thinking things through, and not just putting "I used a calculator" when asked to explain
*Work with others and produce a product over a period of time (weeks) that demonstrates what they know
*Read well and read more than was required in the past, in all subject areas of the test
*Think for themselves and not be “fed” everything they need to know

That, too, is a subject big enough for a whole other post; a book, even. (Yes, I’m working on it.)

The controversy over the CCSS, I’m told, is that people object to schools expecting new materials in order to better develop skills for the CCSS.  Some imply that the CCSS was cooked up by textbook companies and other stakeholders in the business of making money.  Maybe I'm naive; maybe this is all part of big, money-making scheme, but I'm not in the corporate world, and I'm not a politician; I'm in education, and I think having higher standards for American children is a worthwhile endeavor. I’m an idealist; I’m trusting that those in charge are not aiming too high. The “new” standards, from what I’ve seen, aren’t that different than the ones we had before; same subjects, just digging in deeper to require kids to think and process, not memorize and jump through hoops. What can be bad about that?

Here’s a sample question from the Smarter Balanced Assessment:

(I'm not lying when I tell you that it took me at least five minutes to even understand that question. Did I mention the new test is also timed?)

Someone said I’m the first person they’d heard say anything good about the CCSS. One aspect of the Core that really appeals to (yet scares) me is the fact that so many of our country’s students will finally be using the same standards and, in most cases, the same test of those standards. I look forward to seeing how Wisconsin stacks up against other states. That said, I’m also a little nervous, especially as a special ed teacher; today’s test is already hard enough; what are my students going to do when faced with questions so far above their current skill levels? (Again; that's a topic for another post.)

Common Core State Standards; love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re here, and our kids and grandkids need to be prepared for them. I’m actually writing a book on how parents and grandparents can help teachers with this lofty goal. Hopefully, this post helps a little in the meantime.

To learn more about the CCSS, visit Common Core State Standards Initiative
To try your hand at some of the sample test questions, visit the SBAS Portal (just log in as a guest and click through to the questions, but can’t say it’s the most user-friendly)

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