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Education makeover 

SLO County school districts continue implementing a new set of standards, testing assessment


This school year’s kindergarteners won’t ever have to take the California Standards Test. But don’t get jealous just yet, every other student in America. Starting in the 2014-15 school year, California’s old standards will be fully replaced by a new set that comes with a new assessment test.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), as the name indicates, are the end goal of a nationwide initiative to set a common set of internationally benchmarked math and English language standards. Currently, all states have different standards and assessments, which make it difficult to compare test results, student achievement, and education quality across borders. The Common Core will level out the playing field, so to speak, by having the same curriculum principles and evaluations.

California adopted the Common Core standards in 2010, according to the CCSS Initiative website. Forty-four other states have adopted the standards, as have the Department of Defense Education Activity; Washington, D.C.; American Samoa Islands; U.S. Virgin Islands; Guam; and the Northern Mariana Islands. While states were given minimum Common Core Standards, they had the option of building on those standards by as much as 15 percent. California took advantage of this opportunity, the end result of which is in the California Common Core State Standards.

The CCSS goal is to prepare students for college or the workforce by focusing on higher-order thinking skills with the new standards. Students will be expected to provide the right answer and justify their reasoning in the new test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

“Let’s quit pretending that the careers that are going to be out there in this century are about multiple choice, fill in the bubble tests,” Amy Shields, San Luis Coastal Unified School District’s elementary director of learning and achievement, told New Times. “They’re really about getting kids to think deeply, work collaboratively, and solve deep problems.”

But not everyone is supportive of the new standards. Kristin Phatak, a mother of an elementary school student in Chula Vista, is one of the administrators for the Facebook group Californians Against Common Core. Phatak’s main contention is that the standards are developmentally inappropriate and are unproven and untested in the classroom.

“It’s an attempted federal takeover of the state education system,” she told New Times. “The federal government coerced the states to adopt the Common Core standards before the Common Core standards were even written.”

Julian Crocker, San Luis Obispo County Office of Education superintendent, said the federal involvement argument is a “major myth” he’s heard concerning the new standards. He contends that states voluntarily adopted the standards.

Gayle Bilek, a California Teacher Association director and former Templeton middle school teacher, told New Times that the content is the same, but that teachers can adopt and teach the standards in their own style.

The standards

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO

The math standards have undergone the biggest change, according to administrators in SLO County’s local school districts who spoke to New Times. The eight standards are based on frameworks from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and National Research Council. These are based on what mathematicians do when they need to find an answer, according to Patricia Garrett, the SLO County Office of Education director of curriculum, instruction, and technology.

In addition to giving an answer, students must explain how they got to it. Bilek said a student may say 4 times 8 is 32, but she or he also has to provide a drawing and written explanation showing why the answer is 32. The California CCSS has an extra Algebra 1 course for eighth grade students, as well as a Common Core eighth grade math course.

Phatak, who has a California teaching credential and a master’s degree in education, said she began researching the standards when her sixth grade son had “bizarre homework” where he had to show his answer four different ways. Her son’s school was piloting the Common Core program, and she became concerned about his ability to take advanced math classes because she heard algebra would no longer be offered in eighth grade.

Phatak also said the Common Core math standards will be more difficult for English Language Learners because they have to write an explanation versus just having the right answer.

“Here’s this child just learning English who, math may be the one language they communicate in really well,” Phatak said. “It’s just destroyed that one subject area for them in terms of advancement.”

Heather Stover, English Language Development coordinator at Paso Robles High School, said she understands how the new standards could affect immigrant students’ test scores in the short run because of the language aspects. Yet she said involving language in math will be beneficial for them.

“I think math teachers also keeping focus on language will benefit ELD students,” Stover said. “Maybe not in the first five years as math teachers try to figure that out, but in the long run.”

While the CCSS for English Language Arts are accepted, California’s version hasn’t passed yet. The state’s K-12 English College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards are broken up into 32 units divided among reading, writing, language, and speaking and listening skills.

Educators sometimes refer to the English standards setup as a “spiral effect.” Each standard is applied throughout a child’s elementary, middle, and high school career. It begins at a rudimentary level in kindergarten and expands as they advance grades. For example, the CCSS outlines that kindergarteners may work collaboratively in a research project. Their research skills are developed throughout subsequent grades, culminating in seniors being asked to research and conduct in-depth, problem-solving projects alone. Bilek said the spiral effect is a helpful resource for teachers when they notice a student struggling in a particular area.

“I can look back, ask ‘where do I need to go?,’ find what they missed, and reintroduce it,” Bilek said.

Garrett said they’ve found that the texts that schools read don’t translate well into the real world. While English classes will still be tackling literary works, there will be a higher emphasis on expository texts to prepare students for reading college textbooks or work manuals.

Babette DeCou, director of curriculum for Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, said it’s possible for teachers to delve into specific time periods while reading literature.

“Literature is still important,” Garrett said. “Literature is still in the common core, but there is a shift as the grades go up in what we call informational texts.”

Though math and English language arts are, as Garrett said, “the heart and soul,” the Common Core impacts history, science, and technical subject classes as well. Science and social science classes help students’ capability to comprehend and analyze texts as well. Students have to understand how graphs, charts or sidebars complement the lesson plan.

The new CST

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, state led and federally funded, will be the test to assess the CCSS. It hasn’t yet been fully developed, but the first SBAC test is set to be administered at the end of the 2014-2015 school year and will replace the current California Standards Test. The first class to take the computerized SBAC is this year’s sophomores. A pencil and paper option should be available for three years, according to Garrett.

Because the SBAC will assess a student’s reasoning skills, the test will have such question types as selected response, short and extended constructed response, technology enhanced, and performance tasks.

“The point of the assessment with technology is to engage standard higher-order thinking skills,” Superintendent Crocker said. “Our belief is the more competent our students are, then they are better prepared for college or the workforce.”

Students answer a set of questions, and the difficulty of the questions changes depending on the answers. Bilek said a right answer moves them up to a higher level while the wrong answer will keep them at the same level or a lower level. For the English Language Arts portion, Stover said students currently have to point out errors in a draft essay, but they may be asked to rewrite the essay in the new test. The math portion won’t have the typical multiple choice anymore.

“They might have to say yes or no to A, yes or no to B, yes or no to C, and maybe explain it,” Garrett said. “It’s going to take time. Test scores may drop for a while because it’s a whole new system.”

SBAC testing will be taken in the last 12 weeks of school, like current CST testing. However, interim assessment tests may be given throughout the school year. The immediate feedback could help teachers identify problem spots for each student and work on those areas before the actual test, according to SLOCOE administrators.

The implementation

Garrett said more than 30 Common Core trainings took place last school year throughout the SLOCOE districts. A Common Core Steering Committee, made of curriculum representatives, meets every other month to share resources and discuss where they are in the implementation process. Bilek also said the California Teachers Association “wants to be a team” with the districts in implementing the standards. Association representatives have gone to districts, like Templeton, to help teachers adapt to the new process.

In the recent governor’s budget, a one-time fund of $1.25 billion is allocated toward school districts implementing Common Core. Districts will receive $200 per student based on enrollment, and the money must be spent on instructional materials, technology, or professional development before the 2014-2015 school year.

Every school district is at a different level of Common Core implementation. Some districts, like SLO Coastal and Paso Robles, have begun taking the common assessments or implementing the standards in kindergarten in the last school year. DeCou said Paso specifically is focusing on the speaking and listening standards by having students work collaboratively, holding discussions that should prepare them for Socratic seminars—a name for a group discussion—in high school.

Others, like Atascadero Unified School District, have taken a slower approach. Atascadero superintendent Deborah Bowers said this year teachers will have more opportunities to learn how to incorporate the standards into their lessons and assessments. Bowers said the feedback from teachers is a mixture of apprehension and excitement.

“In some ways it’s a little more broad so they can touch on a lot of subjects instead of being so narrowly focused,” she said.

Districts also have different ways of informing parents of the new standards. Shields said SLO Coastal will have a parents’ night in September so parents can see what their kids are doing by working on math problems themselves. In addition to Parent Teacher Association meetings and school newsletters, the SLO Coastal website has a Common Core page with information for parents. Parents will receive more information as well in either back-to-school packets or the website, according to Bowers.

Bilek and Stover said changing to the CCSS will take some time. DeCou compared the process to when California first implemented the California Standards Test in 1997.

“We had a rough couple years,” DeCou said. “I know we got through that, and I know we’ll get through it again.”


Intern Alicia Canales can be reached through Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at [email protected].


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Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
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