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Preparing for the Common Core Standards

SEBRING - Don’t be surprised if next school year you find your child reading more complex, non-fiction passages in school and harder-than-usual math homework that focuses more on critical thinking than rote-memorization. It’s all part of a big shift in learning, called the Common Core Standards, a nationwide school effort to prepare students better for college and the workforce, and make U.S. students at par with those from around the world. Florida's State Board of Education adopted these standards in 2010, followed by more than 40 states in 2011. Now, the state is getting ready to fully implement them, and that includes the Highlands County School District.
In keeping with a state timeline, the county school district implemented Common Core in reading and math at the kindergarten grades in the 2011-2012 school year. This year, it was phased in at the first-grade level. All middle and high school content area teachers (science, social studies and technical subject areas) began implementing a new set of literacy standards this year. Now, “all grade levels (at the Highlands County School District) will be fully implementing the CCSS for reading and math during the 2013-2014 school year,” said Kim Ervin, Highlands County School District’s district reading specialist. District Math Specialist Patt Willard calls it a “whole mindset change,” not just for the students but the teachers. “Teachers, as a rule, are used to standing and delivering the information,” she explained. “The newness is allowing the students to explore and discover.” What this means is that instead of sending students home with 20 problems on addition and subtraction, they may be required to go to the grocery store with mom or dad and find out the unit rate for products on the family grocery list. “There is more problem-solving and thinking beyond the rote-memorization,” Willard said. “The standards set benchmarks for each grade level. And instead of learning a little bit about a lot of things, students will be expected to absorb a lot of information about fewer subjects,” explains StateImpact Florida. What that means is students are learning fewer topics but delving deeper into them. “I like the fact that Common Core allows teachers to teach,” Florida Education Association President Andy Ford told StateImpact Florida. “It says that a first grader is going to be able to add a two digit number by a two digit number, and it doesn’t script how that happens. It gives the teacher the freedom to be able to do that.” Ervin talked about a 2005 study that showed that while college and workforce training textbooks had remained the same over the last 50 years, K-12 texbooks were as much as four years easier for students. “Reading Between The Lines,” a study done by ACT, found that only 51 percent of 2005 ACT-tested high school graduates were ready for college-level reading. “And, what’s worse, more students are on track to being ready for college-level reading in eighth and tenth grade than are actually ready by the time they reach twelfth grade,” the study concluded. Of course, the fundamental question that arose then was: “Are we using the appropriate level of textbooks for our students?” Ervin said. Partly in response to that, the Common Core standards for reading have a lot more non-fiction text. “Reflecting the fact that students will read primarily expository texts after high school, the standards call for a much greater emphasis on nonfiction,” states Robert Rothman in the Harvard Education Letter. “The document proposes that about half the reading in elementary school and 75 percent in high school should be nonfiction.” Students also will be expected to use “evidence to demonstrate their comprehension of texts” and will have to read closely in order to do that. In writing, students are expected to “cite evidence to justify statements rather than rely on opinions or personal feelings.” As far as Ervin is concerned, this is a step in the right direction. “I’m really excited,” she said. Whether the school district buys new instructional materials tied to Common Core depends on what the school district can afford. Highlands County hopes to adopt new reading and math textbooks for grades K-5 this year, Ervin said. Materials for 6-12 English language arts and math are up for adoption next year. “It’s quite costly,” Willard said, although the investment is good for three to five years. School board member Andy Tuck said he keeps hearing from the state that school districts will get more money this year. “We will find the money if we need to,” he said. Tuck said he’s not worried about the school district’s ability to fully implement the new standards and has full faith in district administrators and teachers. “Any time you make such big changes real fast, there are some challenges,” he said. While Education Commissioner Tony Bennett says Florida’s transition to Common Core is on schedule, Ford told StateImpact that the transition was “shaky.” He said teachers have not received “a sufficient amount of training” to make sure they understand the new standards and how to go about implementing them. Both Ervin and Willard said the Highlands County School District has been proactive with professional development and training sessions for its teachers to prepare them. The kindergarten and first-grade teachers who are now teaching Common Core all received training in the summer before the new standards were introduced and “on-going training throughout the year.” “Our district has provided and will continue to provide CCSS professional development for both teachers and administrators,” Ervin said. “Teams of teachers from each school will be attending state sponsored training this summer.” The Florida Department of Education has come up with a “readiness gauge” to measure each district’s progress toward meeting Common Core and digital learning deadlines. The interactive map is broken down to elementary, middle and high schools. In all three, Highlands County is shaded yellow, which means the district has provided partial evidence of his readiness. Ervin said they will be updating that survey. “We will definitely be adding evidence to that survey,” she said. “We feel good about where we are.” When the standards are fully adopted, the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards in reading, language arts and math will be on their way out. When the state shuts the door on the math, reading and writing sections of the FCAT, it will bring in a new set of tougher standardized exams in those subjects. It's expected the new standards will be tested using the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, known by its acronym PARCC, in the 2014-2015 school year. Florida is among a group of states developing the PARCC assessments, which will be given online. Some school administrators have expressed concern about the technological requirements and whether all the school districts will have proper equipment in place to administer these online tests. Ford told StateImpact that he is concerned the assessments aren’t online yet “in order to be able to have all the proof that we need.” “The tests should be developed well in advance so they can be field tested and we can actually hit the ground running when we fully implement it,” he added. Another concern is the potential drop in test scores once the assessment tied to the newer, tougher standards kick in. Kentucky is the first state to tie its tests to Common Core standards in English and math, and the percentage of elementary and middle-school students who rated “proficient” or better on statewide math and reading tests declined by about a third, states Stateline, of the Pew Charitable Trust. Kentucky high schoolers also experienced a double-digit percentage point decline in both subjects, the report, dated Dec. 2012, adds. “Those results may sound dismal, but they were better than state education officials had expected,” according to the report. Ford also feels the PARCC will become the new FCAT because it will still remain a high-stakes test, only will be tougher and more time-consuming. PARCC will be given at least twice a year: Once near the end of February and again near the end of the school year. PARCC will also offer two optional tests that could be given and the start of school and midway through the school year, StateImpact reports. “I’m hoping that the Department (of Education) and the Legislature understand that if we go exactly the same route, we’re going to have the same result,” Ford said in the report. “PARCC will just become the new FCAT and people will hate it just as much, as opposed to having an assessment that people can believe in.”