This week I went to lunch with a mother of three who has recently returned to California after living in Illinois for the past nine years. As is frequently the case when I speak with parents who have elementary school children they lament that school has become dull and boring, filled with worksheets and assessments, and they worry that their students aren’t being challenged or engaged by the classroom. In this case, what was interesting was her comment that her three kids are all essentially repeating material that they learned the prior year in their schools outside of Chicago.
The U.S. has pointedly made K- 16 education a right of each state and community, and while the federal government has maintained monitoring, reporting, and policy oversight since 1867, it has not progressed into taking fundamental control of what students learn and when. However, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, which was enacted under President George W. Bush in 2001, represents the first time the government has required that schools demonstrate success as measured by student achievement. This is very different than many of our Western allies, who direct education from a central office and are able to implement programs consistently across their nation.
The Common Core Standards are an effort by states to create that consistency, independently of the federal government, although the feds are highly supportive of the endeavor. While the Common Core Standards identify key learning goals, they do not require the use of the same learning materials or curricula from state-to-state, as some people mistakenly believe.
Not all states have signed on – Texas, Alaska, Minnesota, Virginia, and Nebraska – have not, and some are reconsidering participation. California has however, and all school districts have already started on the path of replacing the California State Standards with the Common Core Standards. They are also preparing for a new set of standardized tests, or assessments, to replace the California STAR tests, which have been in use since 1999.
What’s important from the national view is that the results of these assessments will be a better way to determine which states are doing the “best” job of educating students, since those participating will have students learning the same concepts in the same grades. It would also, theoretically, end the problem of my lunch partner – moving children from one state to another and being faced with repeating concepts that the student learned in a lower grade
Change is never easy, and those states that have implemented Common Core Standards and assessments are finding that there seem to be disconnects between the currently available curriculum and the assessments. And because the standards emphasize a written demonstration of critical thinking skills, there is a requirement for written responses which students are finding more challenging. This has led to plummeting scores and lots of hand wringing.
In California, the assessment schedule will begin in spring 2015 with English language arts and math. Students in grades three to eight and grade 11 are expected to participate annually. There is some yet-to-be determined assessment for 9th and 10th grade students, but those assessments will not be included in any measurement for NCLB. As part of this shift, districts will have to adopt new curricula that aligns to the Common Core standards for English, Math, Science, and Social Studies. And in California, districts can choose between the traditional math pathway for high school (Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus) or integrated math, which combines Algebra I and II and Geometry and teaches them in an interrelated way over three years (Math I, II, and III).
Some experts believe that the 2015 assessments will create the baseline for high schools, but I think the baseline doesn’t really begin until 2017. The juniors of the class of ’18 who take the tests that year will be the first cohort group to have been taught from the Common Core Standards since the 9th grade. Further, I would expect that the assessments given in 2015 will be more of a judgment on how the California State Standards stack up against the Common Core Standards, since these juniors will have been educated since kindergarten under the California State Standards, once deemed to be the most rigorous in the nation.
In any case, the assessments will still not be used to determine a student’s suitability to progress to the next grade. In high school, the assessment will not have an effect on whether or not the student will graduate (at least for now – there’s some discussion that after full implementation the Common Core Standards assessments could possibly supplant the current California High School Exit exam. And the Common Core Standards assessment score, just like the STAR test score, will not be on any student’s high school transcript for those applying to college.
The assessments are – for now – a way to gauge the performance levels of students across the country in an apples-to-apples way, unlike the past 14 years of NCLB which allowed states to set their own standards and use widely disparate assessments, but then compared their students’ performance by grade level. It could have the added effect of showing how different curricula affect student learning how per-pupil spending actually does or does not make a difference in students attainment of proficiency and content mastery, and it may possibly continue to demonstrate, just like the previous testing did, that the biggest predictor of a student’s proficiency and college readiness can be correlated to the income of the parents. And there’s no standard that’s going to change that.
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