By Laura Barnhardt Cech
At its big premiere last year, Maryland’s Common Core was widely seen as a comedy of errors — and not a very funny one.
Some teachers had to begin classes without a full script (otherwise known as lesson plans). Some in the audience — parents and students — were confused. And while there were plenty of well intentioned characters, the early reviews from critics were not exactly raves. But in its second year of implementation, teachers and school officials are expecting less drama with the Common Core standards.
The new educational standards are now called Maryland’s College and Career-Ready standards, though they are widely still referred to as “Common Core.” They were created to meet national requirements designed to raise the level of education in the United States and make it more uniform across the states.
While standards were introduced at the state level, county school districts are responsible for creating the curriculum to conform to the standards. Most of the curriculum was introduced in Maryland schools last year.
When it comes to what’s in store for this school year, there are four things that parents should be aware of, according to school officials, teachers and core critics. Here is the lowdown.
No. 1: Fewer curriculum changes
Administrators call this coming school year a “continued refinement,” as opposed to a major shift. Critics, too, are expecting less upheaval.
“Last year, teachers were totally unprepared,” says Kimberlee Shaw, a Stop Common Core Maryland organizer and Anne Arundel County parent of two. “It was rough. They were struggling as much as the students and parents.”
The early discomfort didn’t last long, says Susan Errichiello, principal of Belvedere Elementary School in Arnold. “With anything new, there’s a period of adjustment,” she says. “At the end of the year, we were feeling a lot more comfortable.”
Although last year was the first year of full implementation, most school districts — including Calvert County’s — had been slowly incorporating some of the Common Core standards over a period of several years.
But because the MSA tests were still being given, some jurisdictions were straddling the two sets of standards.
“It was a hybrid year,” says Dawn Caine, a sixth- and seventh-grade math teacher at Windy Hill Middle School in Owings. “This year, we will no longer have to balance two sets of standards.”
But, she says, “We will be in transition for two or three years.”
“It’s been a big change for everyone,” says J. Scott McComb, acting director of instruction of Calvert County Public Schools. “But we’re pleased. There’s a real shift to reading more complex texts and a renewed emphasis on writing… There’s a focus on speaking and listening that had faded in education over the past 20 years.”
Other Maryland educators agree with that analysis. “It’s more of a classical education, with Socratic discussions using evidence to support points of view,” says Errichiello. “I think it will produce a generation of great thinkers.”
Teachers have become more collaborative — in each grade but also among other grade levels and subjects, says Claudia Murphy, a reading teacher at Belvedere Elementary in Arnold. “Kindergarten teachers and music teachers and fifth grade teachers are discussing what they’re seeing and what they’re doing,” she says.
Teachers are also getting better at incorporating the standards across subject areas. In a lesson last spring at Belvedere Elementary about fairy tales, students were asked to paint watercolors of the changing sea in the story. They talked about the story elements, and then wrote an opinion piece with examples from the story, Murphy says.
“It produces great conversations,” she adds.
No. 2: Noticeable changes in homework and class work
Some of the curriculum changes may be more visible depending on your child’s grade level. So even if last year didn’t seem that big of a change, parents may notice more homework or more complex assignments this year because Common Core changes are more noticeable in certain grades. For example, some students may have more long-term assignments, though some schools are electing to have students work on the projects in school.
Because third, fourth and fifth grades are more rigorous than previous grades (both before and after Common Core), some parents may notice more difficult or abstract homework.
“There are more expectations in those grades,” says Murphy.
Children in lower grades may have an easier time adjusting because they’re used to it. Students who were introduced early on to Common Core’s way of approaching math — including its focus on concepts and the “why” — have an easier time as the subjects become progressively harder. Those students are also accustomed to the Core’s focus on discussions and can figure out words using context and can write using examples from texts.
“The complication is when students don’t have the background from earlier grades,” says Errichiello.
But judging from last year, students do adapt, she says.
Perhaps the hardest subject for parents to adjust to is math. Used to computing equations — two plus two equals four — it may be baffling to see their children being asked to explain why two plus two equals four. A parent may see it as extra work to have to show steps, or spell out the process.
“It’s the same math, but they’re decomposing the problem,” Errichiello says.
“I think we’re seeing great math thinkers,” says Caine. “They don’t just learn how to get the answer quickly, but why it works… It’s kind of math logic.”
No. 3: Testing begins
“The next unknown is the full implementation of the (testing),” says McComb. “It’s a complex process.”
While the MSAs were given once a year, the Common Core tests will be given in the spring and at the end of the school year. They will be given in grades three through eight and in tenth grade. High schools will also have some mid-year testing.
The test given in the spring, about three-quarters of the way through the school year, will be “performance-based,” with written answers requiring more complex answers that invoke showing reasoning, says David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the consortium of states that created the new Common Core-aligned tests.
The end-of-year “knowledge-based” test will be about content, and will be in a multiple-choice format, scored by computers, Connerty-Marin says. Although it will take longer the first year, the results should later be available in a few weeks, so schools can adjust plans over the summer, he says.
Some county school systems will also elect to administer an exam in the fall to gauge a starting point, according to Maryland Department of Education officials.
Last school year, 60,000 Maryland students, from nearly every school, took field tests to “test the test.” Scores were not recorded, says William Reinhard, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
“It’s a different sort of test,” says Jack Smith, chief academic officer for the Maryland Department of Education. “It’s a more complex assessment.”
“It’s measuring a different way of thinking, with more of a focus on concepts,” says Dawn Caine, a sixth and seventh grade math teacher at Windy Hill Middle School.
But perhaps the most visible change is that it will be administered on computer.
Some schools don’t currently have enough computers, which may force classes to take the test in shifts and also make them unavailable for instruction. There were also problems with the website used during the field tests.
“The technical challenges involved are probably our biggest concerns,” says McComb.
“It’s a potential nightmare,” says Shaw, who is among those concerned about the early reports of the system crashing.
The test will be available on paper at first for school systems that don’t have enough computers in this first year, or in the case of technical problems, Reinhard says.
Still, administrators want to make the switch to digital assessment soon. “It’s the way we live our lives now,” says Smith, adding that the answers can be processed more quickly, giving parents and schools important information more quickly.
“We used to get the information in July, when the students were long gone,” says Caine.
Because it’s the first year of testing, it’s unclear how quickly the results will be available and proficiency levels won’t be set until after the first full run of the test, Reinhard says.
No. 4: There will be new criticism
Testing is the next big area of concern for parents and educators. Even teachers and principals who are happy with Common Core changes are wary about testing multiple times.
“They’re devoting too much time to testing,” says Cindy Rose, a vocal Common Core opponent and a Frederick mother of five, who objects to teachers’ raises and school funding being tied to assessments.
For now, teachers’ evaluations will not immediately be tied to test scores — one of the few pieces of Common Core-related legislation that was approved by Maryland lawmakers. (Dozens of proposals were introduced.)
Common Core will likely be the subject of many more legislative proposals, especially as problems surface in other states. In New York, for example, officials were troubled by the gap in achievement of minority students.
Criticism also remains about how the standards were created. A recent investigation by The Washington Post showed the unusually large influence of the Gates Foundation and testing companies in the process of creating the standards.
Some parents also remain disappointed about the lack of opportunity for input to suggest improvements. “I feel as parents that we’ve been out of the loop,” says Shaw, an Annapolis parent with a seventh grader and a ninth grader. “There’s nowhere to go to fix it. If I have a problem that needs to be addressed, they don’t know who I should talk to. That scares me.”
Even some states that had wholeheartedly embraced the Common Core are now wavering or have withdrawn their participation, citing lack of local control.
Shaw and other opponents remain concerned about the high standards at the elementary level, which they say may be “developmentally inappropriate.” Yet in high school, she says, the range of potential achievement at the uppermost level is limited.
Some also feel that there’s too much emphasis on non-fiction texts in reading classes.
After all the drama of last year, and with critics of the Common Core multiplying, parents, school officials and policy makers will be watching closely this fall: Will the Common Core’s second act be a farce? A soaring inspiration? As the new school year approaches, it may turn out to fit in multiple genres.