Many school districts across the country began teaching toward Common Core State Standards several years ago (the standards were released in 2010). But the 2014-15 school year is the deadline for final implementation and new national assessments that measure students’ mastery of the standards at most grade levels. This year, Common Core-aligned assessments will roll out during spring 2015 for most schools, and districts are busy preparing for the tests. Some states are using their own assessments, so check with your district about what it’s doing. If you’re in a Common Core state, here’s what is ahead for your child.
Refresher: What Are the Common Core Standards?
The Common Core State Standards are a set of national K-12 education standards—or academic skills—in math and English/language arts that your child should know or be able to do for his grade level by the end of each school year. The standards are voluntary, meaning states can choose to adopt them or not. The standards were developed at the state level with collaboration among teachers, administrators, education researchers, state education leaders, and parents. Many states have been using them for a year or longer.
The goal of Common Core was to create academic consistency among participating states to ensure students’ readiness for college and career paths with 21st-century skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, teamwork, research, and technology use. The standards are benchmarks only; districts are free to choose curricula and teaching methods. State education standards have existed since the early 1990s, but with varied expectations and rigor. Common Core’s aim is to define more consistently the skills needed for college and career success. In some states, the new standards are significantly more rigorous than previous standards. (As of January 2015, 43 states plus Washington, D.C., have adopted Common Core, with at least 8 of those states reviewing the standards to some degree.)
Preparing for Assessments
Educators have been aligning teaching methods and curriculum in their classrooms to the standards, in some cases for several years, but until now have been using old assessment methods. The new Common Core assessments rolling out are being written by two groups engaged by the U.S. Department of Education: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). (You’ll hear the tests called “smarter balanced” and “park.”) The test your child takes will depend on the state you live in. The states opting out of Common Core testing are developing their own assessments, some closely aligned to Smarter Balanced. Michigan, for example, which adopted Common Core in 2010, is combining Smarter Balanced items with Michigan-written items for an assessment called the M-STEP.
What Your Child Can Expect
Most students will take their test on a computer or tablet, depending on school technology readiness. (If schools are deemed not technology-ready by the state’s Department of Education, paper versions will be provided.) Participating districts have been working hard to familiarize their students with the test format, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Smarter Balanced uses computer-adaptive questions that adjust according to the student’s answer on a previous question. If the student answers correctly, the computer delivers a more challenging question; if he replies incorrectly, he receives an easier question, explains Sue Gendron, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education. PARCC is a fixed format, so all students receive the same types of questions for their grade level.
The new assessments will require more writing and problem solving because they are designed to measure classroom skills and knowledge. In the past, says Gendron, state assessments typically tested “information recall” with multiple-choice questions, and students weren’t asked to apply higher-level thinking. But using process of elimination as a strategy won’t work anymore. On the new assessments, students will have a series of choices requiring them to apply their mathematical thinking, for example, or to analyze a text and provide evidence for their reasoning. They will use a mouse to drag and drop information, highlight, or manipulate, as well as keyboard written answers. Some test sections will include “constructive response” items, where students will show their work and earn credit for correct work even if they get the wrong answer.
In addition to measuring students’ thinking and knowledge, “the goal with the new assessments is to inform teacher instruction,” Gendron says. The computer-scored portions of the test are scored instantly and will help teachers adjust their curricula before school is out for the summer, as well as identify students who need extra help or summer programming. “The goal of the assessments is to make the results actionable and helpful to teachers to support kids,” Gendron says.
How Schools Are Preparing
Many schools ran a “field test” last year, giving students the opportunity to take their state’s new test even though it wasn’t scored. Marie Morelock, chief academic officer of Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools in Los Angeles, Calif., says the Smarter Balanced test experience (administered statewide) gave educators a chance to see where kids needed help with technology, and prepared kids for types of questions they’ll see this spring.
The district began using Common Core just last year, and sample test questions were more rigorous than past California standards. “But we want our kids to able to do this work. We need to prepare our kids to compete in the 21st century,” Morelock says. To transition to Common Core, her district engaged teachers in talks to discuss gaps in teaching and how to adjust instruction to meet the standards. They also have subject-specific “cadre” leaders at each grade level, who meet monthly with teachers to make decisions about texts, themes, and units to teach.
Margaret Hendrickson, a math/science curriculum specialist and testing coordinator in West Bloomfield, Mich., says in her district, teachers are getting up to speed on new assessment administration practices and are testing the school network by flooding it with multiple grades online simultaneously to see how the network handles the load. She’s excited but also nervous about the upcoming assessments. “We’ve done assessments that have tested lower depths of knowledge for years. We are now being asked to use a more substantive college-and-career-ready test that assesses higher depths of knowledge. It’s going to take us time to get there,” she says.
In Mississippi, where the students will take the PARCC test, high school math teacher Jennifer Wilson has been teaching to Common Core standards for three years, and sees a marked difference in her students’ higher-level thinking from three years ago. To prepare for new assessments, the district has been incorporating practice tests twice a year, and this year moved the tests to the computer. But, Wilson says, “We’re trying to let the standards drive our instruction, not the assessments.” Past state tests influenced instruction, she explains, one of the reasons students weren’t ready for college and career paths, and the district’s focus is to teach to the standards with the goal that students will be ready for the assessments. Until students take the new test, no one knows exactly how it will go.
What Parents Should Know
Change takes time. Not all states have had adequate time to prepare for the new assessments, but districts are doing their best and counsel patience. “We’ve been preparing, and we can always use more time, but it’s time to take on the assessment challenge,” Hendrickson says. She reminds parents that although these assessments are new, kids and teachers have been engaged for a year or more with the Common Core skills students will be asked to demonstrate.
However, it’s possible—even probable—that some states’ scores will go down when compared to past state tests. Educators expect scores to rise as students gain classroom skills, Gendron says. She recommends that parents try sample tests on both test websites, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, so they can experience what their child will do this spring. They can use the score guide on the website to score themselves.
Check to see if your district will host parent information nights. Some have offered Common Core math nights so parents understand what’s being taught in the classroom. If you have questions, talk with your child’s teacher about how your school has been preparing for the assessments.