By Polly Keary, Editor
When one state claims to have higher student test scores than another, does that actually mean students in that state are better-educated?
Until now, that’s been difficult to say.
That’s because all the states had their own standards, and their own tests, too.
But that is changing, as more and more states adopt what are called Common Core Standards, a set of standards and tests used by all, and the Monroe School District is gearing up to adopt those standards next year.
Common Core Standards arose out of a meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA) in 2009, when a group of educators was convened to establish standards that states would share, and that would more adequately prepare kids for college or careers.
Fran Mester, Assistant Superintendent of Monroe Public Schools, said that she believes those educators did a good job.
“They hired what I think is the best-of-the-best to establish well-written, clear and concise standards for K-12,” she said. “They are research-based, really sound and up-to-date.”
The new standards include more technical curricula, including how to draw information from the internet, how to parse video for understanding, how to work well in groups, a new emphasis on logic and debate, discussion skills, and other skills that help students in the modern digital and professional world.
Essentially, the new standards focus on two major areas; English Language Arts and Mathematics.
Within English Language Arts are five components; reading, writing, speaking and listening, language, and media and technology. States can also add keyboarding and cursive if they wish.
Under the Mathematics standards are standards for mathematical practice and standards for mathematical content.
Mathematical practice includes making sense of problems and persevering in finding solutions; abstract and quantitative reasoning; construction and critique of arguments; mathematical modeling; use of mathematical tools; precision and more.
Mathematical content is divided into four “domains,” including operations and algebraic thinking; numbers and operations in “base 10;” measurements and data and geometry.
Older students study the number system, equations, statistics and probability and more geometry.
Transition not easy
The state in 2010 decided to adopt the standards and gave the districts three years to get ready.
Adopting the standards is a huge task. It means, first of all, replacing a lot of old curricula, and the school district has been working at it for several years.
“Part of it was, you had to wait for the (textbook) publishers to get on the same page,” said Mester. “Now, instead of gearing everything to two or three states, everything is built on Common Core Standards.”
Then the district must train all the teachers how to teach the new standards, which requires many teachers to start teaching their grade levels things that had been only taught to older students before.
“That’s a major staff development for our teachers,” said Mester. “What we might have taught in third grade will be taught in second. The academic rigor has increased all the way down.”
The process isn’t cheap, either; four years ago, the district spent $350,000 replacing elementary math books and materials
Along with the new standards is a whole new system of tests. Ten years ago, the state was using the rather unpopular WASL test to assess student learning. The state scrapped that and instead adopted the MSP tests for elementary and middle school, as well as the HSPE for high school students, with math skills tested by the EOC, or end-of-course exams.
Those tests will now give way to a new set of tests called the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, or SBAC. This year will be the last year students take the HSPE, which is tied to graduation, and which is given in the 10th grade, with all students expected to have mastered the skills tested by the time they graduate.
The SBAC will be given in the 11th grade. By 2019, the SBAC will also take the place of the EOC exams, as well.
The tests are much more technologically sophisticated. They are taken on computers, not on paper. They require students to not only answer questions, but perhaps analyze the content of a video, or use evidence to back up an argument.
“There is much more assessment around thinking and skills,” said Mester.
One very positive aspect of the new standards is that with them comes a new tool called STAR testing. The test was first administered last year on a trial basis, and this spring, for the first time, the scores will be reported to parents.
The computer-based tests give a more nuanced picture of a student’s abilities because the questions given differ based on whether the student got the previous question right or not.
The school district demands that the tests be administered four times each year, but teachers actually have the ability to test students as a class or as individuals any time they wish, as a diagnostic tool.
“The MSP test says what percent of these things you know,” said Mester. “The STAR says, ‘I can reach this far into the next grade level, as well.’”
“It really lets teachers know about the student,” added School District Superintendent Ken Hoover. “A teacher can mark the point at which they’ve put in an intervention and then watch what happens after. It helps them understand what’s working.”
Along with new assessments of the students are new assessments of the teachers and administration.
Currently, the state measures what is called Adequate Yearly Progress, based on how much a school has improved year-over-year, as well as how well it has done compared to an expectation that 80 percent of students pass a test.
The new assessment will evaluate schools based on how well they do compared to each other. Schools with scores at the low end of the curve will be determined to be underperforming.
That piece of the new standards troubles some educators.
“That’s why some schools are backing out,” said Mester.
Grading schools on a curve, as it were, guarantees that some schools will be identified as performing poorly. Theoretically, every school in Washington could achieve a 90 percent or higher success rate, and the quarter of schools with scores in the low 90s could be penalized as underperforming.
“You’ve guaranteed 25 percent of schools will be determined underperforming,” said Hoover.
Overall, though, the change to Common Core Standards, which is supposed to be complete next year, is a positive, said school district spokesperson Rosemary O’Neil.
“The bottom line is that young people need to have these skills and abilities to be successful,” she said. “That’s something that the community, state and nation need to point out. Young people need as bright a future as possible.”