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Confusion, controversy surround new standards

By Bethany Knipp

A source of confusion and political debate, the Common Core State Standards for kindergarten through 12th graders might pose questions for some or be controversial for others.

The Common Core standards are an attempt to have a national set of goals and corresponding tests for students across the country in English language arts (ELA) and in math. The idea is to make sure they’re prepared for two- or four-year colleges or the work force after high school.

The standards have been adopted in 44 states, including Kansas in 2010, but Nebraska, Alaska, Texas and Virginia have not taken up the standards. Minnesota has adopted standards for ELA but not for math. Indiana recently withdrew its adoption.

‘The idea behind Common Core is that nationwide, we have some basic set of knowledge rules,’ USD 383 school board member Darell Edie said.

Common Core vs. previous standards

Kansas adopted Common Core under Gov. Mark Parkinson and Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker. The standards in Kansas are called the College and Career Ready Standards. (The state in 2013 also adopted a set of non-Common Core standards for science, history, government and social studies.) Students are tested each spring in third through eighth grade, and then once in high school — usually in 11th grade.

Common Core tests are said to be more rigorous than the 2014 proficiency requirement under No Child Left Behind implemented by President George W. Bush, an act that Congress did not renew this year.

Common Core asks students to think more critically than they’ve had to before, said Carol Adams, the USD director of teaching and learning.

‘I think these are very much in alignment with what we want students to do in the 21st century,’ she said.

The questions are more text and evidence based. In math, instead of only solving algebraic equations, students would be given a story problem surrounding the equations with the requirement that students justify their answers.

In English, students would be asked to find evidence to questions based on a passage.

In a fifth-grade sample question, for example, a student would be asked, ‘What is the meaning of the word ‘dictate’ as it is used in paragraph 23?’ and then the second part of the question, ‘Which phrase helps the reader understand the meaning of the word ‘dictate’?’

‘These standards are more rigorous, and they raise the bar grade level by grade level,’ Adams said.

By the time 12th graders are ready to graduate, according to one of the ELA literacy standards, students should be able to do this in the ‘Craft and Structure’ part of the literacy requirement: ‘Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.’

Implementation of goals

The standards set goals like those but don’t tell teachers how to get their students to that level.

‘Common Core sets standards that say, ‘Kids need to know about logarithms,’ but they don’t prescribe what book they’re going to use or what curriculum they’re going to use,’ USD 383 board member Dave Colburn said.

Adams said that in USD 383, administrators are on board with the College and Career Readiness Standards, which were implemented in the district this year.

‘I would say that across all of our schools, we’re all on board with this,’ she said.

But schools across Kansas— including USD 383 — struggled this year with a state pilot testing program called the Kansas Transitional State Assessment that was supposed to match and measure what the College and Career Readiness Standards teach. Software glitches caused an online testing debacle that various districts had to endure.

At USD 383, students who were to test this spring had little or no hope of logging on to the testing system much less finishing the test.

Adams said that didn’t have anything to do with the standards, but rather the technological difficulties of Kansas making its own new assessment to fit them, which is an alternative to paying big bucks for a national testing company like Pearson Education to do it.

‘Confusion’ surrounding Common Core

Four years after Common Core’s implementation in Kansas, state legislators are questioning its existence.

Kansas Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, said he is one of them. When asked why the standards are undergoing scrutiny years after their adoption, Highland said, ‘What’s happened since then is it’s being questioned.’

Highland sits on the Education and Education Budget Committee in the Kansas House and said he’s heard from parents and grandparents who are concerned about the standards, especially when homework assignments are different than before.

‘I’ve heard from parents that it’s confusing,’ he said. ‘We’re still trying to gather the facts. That’s a hard commodity to come by these days.’ Another question that hasarisen is where Common Core comes from.

The standards were initiated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with help from an advisory group made of people from Achieve Inc., a bipartisan, non-profit organization; ACT Inc.; the College Board; the National Association of State Boards of Education; and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Though endorsed by the Obama administration, the federal government did not implement or fund Common Core.

But by adopting any standards including Common Core, states can qualify to compete for $4.35 billion of Race to the Top grants for education reform and classroom innovation.

Common Core also was privately funded through foundations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, according to information from the Kansas Department of Education.

Political debate over testing

Last week during the Kansas legislative session, there was a brief attempt to defund Common Core by denying the votes needed to pass the budget. During budget proceedings, Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, wanted the House to vote on legislation to stop funding the standards, but the attempt didn’t go anywhere. Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said no money was appropriated in the budget for Common Core, so what defunding it last week would have accomplished is a mystery.

Carlin said she is supportive of the College and Career Readiness Standards.

‘I think it’s a really good idea in theory,’ she said. ‘I think so far, it’s worked very well for people. I think it will have a very positive impact on children who move a lot.’

Carlin said her own granddaughter is one of those children who has moved frequently.

Locally, board of education member Colburn said he feels the need to defend Common Core, despite what he sees as some shortcomings.

‘So much out there about Common Core is ideological hogwash,’ Colburn said.

He said he’s not a fan of the continuation of ‘highstakes’ testing where students take tests as an accountability measure so schools can keep receiving money from the state and federal governments.

‘We have high-stakes testing now, but every state has its own tests,’ he said. ‘Common Core is the logical, probably correct, response to make this more standardized, to make this more consistent.’

But there are a lot of layers to the Common Core onion, he said.

‘It’s complicated, and it’s goofy, and no one knows what’s going to happen,’ Colburn said.

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