Common Core 'sea change' hits local schools

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Mon., Nov. 11, 2013
Griswold Middle School language arts teacher Laurie LaBossiere leads her sixth-graders in a small group exercise, searching through books for passages that describe a character's feelings. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Griswold Middle School language arts teacher Laurie LaBossiere leads her sixth-graders in a small group exercise, searching through books for passages that describe a character's feelings. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

As school districts across the country transition to the nation-wide Common Core Standards, local teachers, administrators and parents are bracing for a sea change in the way students are taught and evaluated.

Parent, teacher and Voluntown School Board member Vikki Smith said that one of her administrators called the Common Core the biggest transformation educators will ever see in their careers. “It’s that broad. It’s an enormous shift in the way we’re teaching kids and the way we’re testing kids,” she said.

All but five states in the U.S. have adopted the Common Core, which lists a series of benchmark skills that should be achieved by students at the end of each grade level. Contrary to popular misconception, it does not mandate certain books or curricula, but simply sets expectations for the skills students need to build upon in order to be college- or career-ready by the end of high school. The skills progress in difficulty and complexity with each grade level, and standardized tests measure each student’s mastery of the skill set at each level.

“The expectation is that at the end of the year, you will be able to master these standards,” said Griswold Superintendent of Schools Paul Smith. “The expectation is that [teachers] are going to find a way. That’s a challenge.”

“They’re very challenging,” Vikki Smith said of the benchmarks. A reading intervention teacher in a Gales Ferry elementary school, she said that kindergarten students in her school “are writing three or four sentences and reading books in the first two months of school.” Her school is in its second year of Common Core implementation.

As an example of the Common Core approach to language arts, Vikki Smith explained, a multiple-choice question might have more than one answer. “There might be five right answers out of eight. That means a different way of testing,” she said. Questions in language arts are text-dependent, requiring students to read closely, “to pay attention to what the author is saying and why he’s saying it. Kids have to have a deeper level of comprehension than in the past. Kids are having to be readers certainly beyond what I did [when I was] in school.”

In another example, Vikki Smith said, fourth-graders use a wide range of materials in language arts, reading four passages on the same topic, one each from an opinion piece, a literary classic, a meditation and a news article.

Griswold Director of Curriculum Susan Rourke said that the focus in language arts is shifting towards more informational writing. While the classics of literature will not be ignored in building reading skills, “about 50 percent of what we do will be informational”- helping students learn more about ecology, for example, simultaneously with reading.

In mathematics, students will be expected to know three or four different ways to solve a problem. Vikki Smith said her seventh-grade son is already using graphic algebraic equations, a skill previously expected in high school.

While many educators hope that the Common Core will improve public schools by raising the academic bar and spurring American students to higher achievement in school, many see it as a double-edged sword.  Paul Smith and Rourke both agreed that the tight focus on skills will to some extent stifle spontaneous learning – the kind where a teacher takes her students on a “side trip” in greater depth on an obvious and widespread interest among the students.

“We’re asking teachers to do more than ever before, but the teachers in our district are stepping up,” said Paul Smith. “As we move on and teachers get more comfortable [with the Common Core], it will allow for those creative juices to flow.”

Rourke added that special needs students will still have individual educational programs (IEPs) tailored to their specific abilities, but “how that fits into the reporting piece is a little tricky.”

Another concern is that the new system will exacerbate the misuse of test results in “ranking” schools. The former Connecticut Mastery Test was designed to help teachers identify individual students’ problem areas for better focus and remediation. But over the years, CMT results have been turned into a popular ranking tool for school districts, as “proof” of high achievement or failure. “Now we’re not just comparing towns within the state – we’re comparing towns in all the states,” said Paul Smith. It’s a dangerous path, since individual districts vary so widely in socio-economic environment.

Vikki Smith added that during the transition, parents should not be surprised if standardized test scores seem to dramatically drop. “If our kids were at 80 percent of the goal [on the CMTs], on the new test they might be at 30 percent of goal,” she said. Test scores will begin rising as students and teachers alike settle in and begin building up skills, she said.

Paul Smith said that teacher evaluations will also be more stringent under the Common Core. Griswold has already implemented its new teacher evaluation process and has been ordering Common Core-compliant textbooks for the past couple of years. The first actual standardized testing will take place in 2015, using a tool called the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

“The exciting part of what’s happening now is that we meet [students] where they are and push them forward,” Rourke said. The Common Core “benefits every student so that every student gets the same instructional experience and the same instructional expectation,” Rourke said.

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