Common Core State Standards Moving Ahead in Area Schools

Diane D'Amico | Press of Atlantic City

It may have looked a lot like the traditional summer vacation essay, but Galloway Community Charter School third-grade teacher Stephanie Wilson wasn’t giving her students an easy “back-to-school” assignment.

Each student’s “narrative passage” would also be recorded on a iPad, giving Wilson a baseline of reading and writing skills she and the students will build on during the school year.

“In May, we’ll be able to compare and see how much they learned,” she said. The school opened in mid-August to give teachers and students an extra two weeks of class time before state testing in the spring.

The 2014-15 school year will be a pivotal period for public education in New Jersey and the nation.

Starting in March, students in grades three through eight and high school juniors are scheduled to take the first computer-based state tests in language arts and math modeled after the Common Core State Standards.

Finalized in 2009 and adopted by New Jersey in 2010, the Common Core State Standards in math and language arts initially faced little opposition and still have the support of the state Board of Education, the New Jersey Education Association and the New Jersey School Boards Association.

New Jersey’s state board first adopted its own state standards in the mid-1990s and currently has standards in seven additional content areas.

But as new standardized tests and teacher evaluations were linked to the standards, and as another presidential election looms, the Common Core has become more than just a set of basic expectations for knowledge and skills students should have when they graduate from high school.

Today, they are a political rallying point of opposition for a multitude of special-interest groups that claim that they are the first step toward a national government-run curriculum, will generate an increase in standardized tests and/or unfairly link teacher performance to the results of just one test.

While about 40 states still support them, there has been some wavering in response to the opposition. Gov. Chris Christie is forming a commission to review their impact, and the state Department of Education plans a campaign this year to better inform residents about the standards.

NJDOE spokesman Mike Yaple said the department plans to work closely with schools to promote a community dialogue.

A group called Concerned Citizens of SNJ is co-sponsoring a “No More Common Core” forum at the Ramada Inn in Vineland on Sept. 27. Janice Lenox, of North Wildwood, a member of the group, said they don’t support the standards, the government’s role in them or the cost of implementing and testing them.

“We want them to be examined,” she said.

Smothered in the rhetoric are the standards themselves. Actual curriculum and lessons are still determined by local school districts. The standards say children should learn to read. They do not tell them specifically what to read.

“There are so many myths now, and they have gotten so political,” Wendel Steinhauer, executive director of the New Jersey Education Association, said of the standards. “We do have some issues with the tests and the teacher evaluations, which are being addressed. But we do support the standards. A lot of people don’t see that separation.”

The name Common Core has become so toxic that when Education Next did its annual national survey, support had dropped from 65 percent in 2013 to 53 percent this year. But when they asked about having standards without naming the Common Core, support rose to 68 percent.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll in July found more than half of New Jersey residents polled knew nothing about the standards. About a third said they had heard something, or a lot, and of that group, slightly more than half opposed them. But that group also believed Common Core included topics such as sex education, evolution and history, which are not part of the core standards at all.

“The Common Core standards themselves seem fairly innocuous,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and PublicMind survey analyst. “But in the absence of real information about them, people have attached all sorts of controversy to them.”

Lesson plans

While the political battle rages, parents and students may notice some differences in their children’s lessons, but also a lot of familiar skills. Students will still learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide but may see more word problems and practical applications rather than just worksheets of problems to solve.

Students will still study spelling and grammar, though they may read more informational texts and a little less fiction. They may be asked to write more and start taking teacher-designed tests on computers to practice for the state tests. Keyboarding and computer skills will be crucial.

“We definitely expect them to be on computers more,” said Allison Abate, librarian at Pleasantville Middle School, who attended a summer Google workshop at Richard Stockton College.

“It’s not teaching to the test, but it is teaching differently” said Frank Pileiro, technology coordinator in the Linwood School District. “Today’s students will learn digitally and hands-on.”

Colleges are also modifying their curriculums to make sure new teachers are well-versed in the Common Core standards.

“Today’s college students have never heard of the Common Core,” said Claudine Keenan, dean of the education program at Stockton. “It’s going to be a challenge for the next few years.”

Stockton sponsored summer workshops to train teachers in developing computer-based assessments based on the Common Core model.

Earlier this year, many local schools participated in a sample practice run of the new state tests, called PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). Teachers said it provided insight into how the test will be set up. And while science and history are not part of the Common Core, the language arts and math standards will influence how they are taught.

“We want them to think critically and be able to solve problems,” said Camelia Cherry, middle school science teacher in the Atlantic City schools who ran a summer program in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, for 25 students in grades six through eight. “But students are so afraid of failure. We’re trying to teach them how to learn from their mistakes and to fix them.”

Math teacher Andrew Parker summed up the new skills like this: “They’re learning how to make a video game, and not just how to play one.”

Adjusting to skill levels

Atlantic City schools math supervisor Raymond Allen said students will need a greater understanding of concepts and skills to succeed. That means memorizing multiplication tables but also understanding when to add or multiply to solve a real-life problem.

“The standards call for fluency,” he said. “Teachers have to adjust, too.”

Students don’t all arrive in September with the same skills, and teachers are expected to personalize instruction to meet student skill levels.

“When I was walking around yesterday, I noticed a couple of things we should go over,” said Galloway Charter School fourth-grade teacher Laura Drahos as her students sat in a group around her during the first week of school.

She did a quick review of how to multiply double digits (85 x 9) and how to “borrow” when subtracting from zero (840-162) before sending her students to one of four math centers. Each center focused on addition, subtraction or multiplication skills, using both traditional problems and math games.

“They like the centers much more than just doing worksheets,” Drahos said of the students. “It is more work this way, but they enjoy it and can work at their level.”

Some students quickly completed the tasks, while others struggled. It was clear that while some students were up to speed, others had not mastered even basic multiplication tables.

“Right now I’m still assessing,” Drahos said as she moved among the groups. “Then I’ll be setting up math groups based on their skills. I want to challenge them to improve.”

Drahos writes each day’s objectives on a white board. A recent day’s lessons began with learning to make connections in content while reading, writing their narrative and working in the math centers.

“The students really like coming in and being able to see what we are going to do each day,” she said. “They like having a schedule.”

Wilson said the expectations for her third-graders have not changed but have gotten more complex.

“The students have to have more than a surface knowledge,” she said. “There is a lot more depth to the standards. But I’m confident (my students) can meet them.” 

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