Students and parents, take note: New, tougher academic standards for kindergartners through 12th-graders are kicking in this fall.
Instead of memorizing the times table or a mathematical formula, students must acquire deep understanding of how numbers work. Instead of a vocabulary test, they must explain what motivated an author to write a book a certain way.
Under the new Common Core standards adopted by Maine and 44 other states, students will need to understand material more deeply and work out problems on their own. It is aimed at ensuring high school graduates are ready for college or a job and can compete in a global market.
It also won’t be easy. The new standards require a fundamental change in teaching methods, and when testing starts in 2015, the state will see an inevitable drop in student test scores, according to experts.
“It could be as high as 40 percent in some grades and some content areas,” said David Galin, the chief academic officer in the Portland School District. “It’s going to be shocking for some people.”
The cost could be shocking, too. One national study said it will cost states $80 per student and $560 per teacher to make the switch.
Supporters say the new standards, which have garnered criticism from politicians and educators as well as support, are worth it if students end up with a more robust education.
“It’s pulling the Band-Aid off, but you have to do it if you care about the kids,” said Patrick Murphy, a University of San Francisco professor who has studied the cost and effect of the shift to Common Core.
At its most basic level, the standards are meant to enhance critical thinking and problem-solving. They were written and reviewed by dozens of people, including mathematics and English experts, university professors, state education representatives, teachers, school administrators and parents. The developers also looked at standards in high-performing U.S. states and foreign countries.
Each state now has its own standard, making it impossible to compare test scores directly by grade and subject matter. The patchwork approach also can create practical problems for families: If a student moves, there is no guarantee a seventh-grade mathematics course in one state prepares her for eighth-grade mathematics in another state.
For educators, the new standards mean students should be ready for college or a job after graduating from high school. College readiness is a significant issue. Maine’s community colleges have reported that 50 percent of last year’s freshmen from Maine high schools needed remedial courses.
“What we’re finding in education is that teachers can become enablers for a student to seemingly master an area, but when they go to transfer the same concept, they can’t do it,” Lewiston Schools Superintendent Bill Webster said. “Common Core is part of the trend of students taking more ownership of their education and teachers becoming more facilitators and lecturers. Students will be in situations where they need to be figuring out things more on their own.”
If a teacher steps in too fast to help a struggling student, it’s not helping the student in the long run, said Jennifer Kelly, one of five Portland teachers who are on a special two-year assignment to train other teachers in the district on Common Core.
“As teachers, we have coddled kids too much because we want everyone to succeed; but we need to allow them the time to struggle a bit,” Kelly said. “We need to push kids to dig deeper.”
The new mathematics and English standards, released in 2010, were developed jointly by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, to end inconsistent standards from state to state. Within months, most states had adopted them.
Upping the academic expectations means teachers have to make sure their classroom materials and teaching plans hit certain benchmarks defined by the new standards.
“Next year is going to be exciting but hard,” Kelly said.
The standards spell out exactly what students in each grade level should know, such as learning the coordinate system in fifth-grade mathematics, or studying U.S. historical texts such as the Gettysburg Address or the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in ninth-grade English. (Year-by-year standards are available online at www.corestandards.org.)
A big change for English classes, for example, is requiring more nonfiction or “informational” reading material. By 12th grade, students should be reading 70 percent informational texts and 30 percent literature, according to the standards.
That’s a big change for most classes. Galin noted that just purchasing that material could prove extremely expensive for Portland schools.
But advocates say high school graduates need to be able to read an employee handbook, a mortgage document or a business contract just as much as they need to know how to parse plot development in a novel.
“This is a rigorous set of standards,” said Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who strongly supports the new standards. “It will allow students to connect to higher education in new ways … and improve teaching practices.”
Questions about cost
Gov. Paul LePage signed the Common Core standards into law in 2011, after unanimous support in both the House and Senate. They replace the Maine Learning Results, which were implemented in 1997 and revised in 2007.
There were no new funds earmarked for the shift, which would be “absorbed within existing budgeted resources,” according to a fiscal note attached to the original legislation.
In Maine, with its long tradition of local control, the state’s education officials are not drawing up lesson plans, reading lists or proposing what schools should do to achieve the new standards.
Nor is the state earmarking special one-time money to offset new training and material costs, something other states have done. In Tennessee, 30,000 teachers recently signed up for a second round of state-led training in the new standards. California earmarked $1.25 billion in one-time funds and announced “California’s Common Core Summer,” in which teachers are “already back in class” to prepare for the fall.
In Maine, the state is playing a supportive role rather than taking the helm, Bowen said.
“What’s encouraging to me is there’s a ton of work being done on it,” Bowen said of the districts. “They’re using this as a chance to look at how they’re teaching, not what they are teaching.”
Dan Hupp, who oversees content standards for the state, said the department has been working with districts and sending out trainers.
It’s a big job, he acknowledged.
“I’d say this is the biggest switch that we’ve ever had,” said Hupp, director of state standards and assessment for the Department of Education.
One advantage is that Maine isn’t going it alone. With so many states adopting Common Core on the same timetable, they can share resources, discuss what works and learn from each other.
“Anything that works well for one is embraced by others,” Hupp said. “We’ve never had anywhere near a resource like that, never had this economy of scale. This thing is huge,” with almost all states “pitching in to learn these standards.”
Hupp said the trainers in local districts can go online to find lesson plans, sample units, discussion boards and other resources as they determine how to implement the changes locally.
“It’s just a whole different ballgame,” he said.
Adopting Common Core standards costs $35 per student for instructional material, $560 per teacher for professional development, $45 per student for testing and $4 million for fixed transitional costs, according to a study authored by Murphy and two other professors for the Thomas Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.
In Maine, which had 185,767 students and 15,323 teachers last year, that works out to about $27.5 million.
However, that cost is offset by the fact that the state and individual school districts already spend millions on testing and professional development, and that much of the new Common Core training materials and resources are available free, state officials said. Test fees are expected to drop in Maine under Common Core.
“You can spend it if you want to, but if you can embrace the commonness of the Common Core, those resources are out there,” said Hupp, noting the free Common Core-specific resources online represent a move away from paper textbooks. “I see this as a potential cost saver for schools.”
Portland officials are estimating it will cost an additional $500,000 a year for five years to pay for training and materials, Galin said. Much of it will be reallocated from existing programs, he said.
Already, Portland high schools are considering adding resources next year for ninth-graders, making sure the students get through the new algebra requirements, Galin said.
Those costs are one of the reasons opposition to the Common Core has been growing.
There was little criticism of the standards when they were first proposed and adopted, but in recent months many groups have stepped up their protests.
Small-government advocates and tea party groups say the standards are an example of federal government overreach. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution opposing the standards, and conservative radio host Glenn Beck has railed against them on his show. This spring, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and eight other Republican senators signed a letter seeking to defund all Common Core-related initiatives at the Department of Education.
But the opposition hasn’t fallen completely along party lines, and education reformers such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, and Students First leader Michelle Rhee, a Democrat, both strongly support the changes.
The more liberal American Federation of Teachers supports the standards but opposes “high-stakes” testing that ties students’ test results to teacher evaluations or school sanctions.
Even education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who served under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, went from initially supporting the standards to opposing them.
The effort is “fundamentally flawed,” in part because it wasn’t tested first, Ravitch wrote in a February post on her education blog.
“(The standards) are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time,” Ravitch wrote. “Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. … Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences?”
Various critics have charged the standards are too easy and will dumb down higher standards in some states, or that they’re too hard and will result in students “giving up” if their grades drop. They have questioned the costs of the new standards, from training to testing, and argue that personal student data will be collected inappropriately.
However, Maine has not seen any organized opposition. Bowen said he and the governor have received “a handful of letters,” but nothing serious. A lone anti-Common Core protester was at the governor’s recent re-election fundraiser in Kennebunkport, holding a “Common Core = Communist Core” sign outside the event.
In Lewiston, Webster said the shift to Common Core came at an excellent time for his district, since the curriculum was due for an overhaul anyway.
“We have wiped the board clean,” said Webster. “We’ve used it as an opportunity to start with a whole fresh approach.
“We’re really taking a look at what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it.”
It had been so long since the district reviewed the curriculum that not all fourth-graders in one elementary school were learning the same skills being taught at another elementary school, he said.
For the last year, Lewiston has undertaken districtwide analysis and training to prepare for the new standards. As the state’s second-largest district, Lewiston has professional development grant money that can be used for the training and resources it will need, Webster said.
Smaller districts, however, may have a harder time finding the time and money.
“With something like Common Core, we were able to bring in outside consultants that are experts,” Webster said. “It’s unfortunate that Maine’s local control winds up being an impediment to improvement just because of lack of local resources.”
However, Webster said he has no doubt that the standards are good for both educators and students.
Parents need to know about the changes too, Galin and Kelly said. The transition team held three parent information nights last year, but few parents attended. They plan to have more parent information nights next year.
Based on other states’ experiences, it’s almost certain test scores will drop initially, and parents and students will have a rough transition.
In Kentucky, the first state to administer Common Core tests, there was a 30 to 40 percent drop in proficiency in reading and mathematics, according to results released late last year.
In April, The New York Times reported that many New York students who took the new tests this spring were overwhelmed, failed to finish the test and were reduced to tears in some cases. Some children boycotted the test — more than half of one school’s eighth-grade class at one school. And that was after the city had launched a “flashy” advertising campaign warning of the higher standards, the Times reported.
Maine students will take their first Common Core tests in 2015.
Maine is among 25 states in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium for developing student tests, while 22 states and the District of Columbia are part of another group, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. Both test equally whether students meet the new standards, but there are differences.
Maine state officials said they liked Smarter Balanced’s online testing, which adjusts to a student’s ability in real time. So if a seventh-grader is acing the seventh grade-level mathematics questions, the test starts feeding the student eighth-grade-level questions. The results also come back in weeks, not months, officials said.
Hupp said students can take practice tests at smarterbalanced.org to get a sense of what the test is like.
No matter which test is used, however, Maine scores probably will drop.
Galin said he estimated the effect on Portland students by looking at how they scored on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, a harder U.S. Department of Education test that measures U.S. students’ results in a more global context.
In 2011, the state assessments found 70 percent of Portland fourth-graders proficient, but that same class got only 32 percent proficiency in the NAEP. Galin expects the same kind of gap with the Smarter Balanced results.
“In Wisconsin and Tennessee, it looks like comparing their (new tests) with their old assessments, the gap is very similar to the gap between the NAEP and the old assessment,” Galin said.
“So it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying for us as a state,” he said.
States can prepare by letting parents and the larger education community know what’s coming, Murphy said. In May, Minnesota parents got a letter from State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius warning them that their children may receive lower scores on the new tests. Kentucky also let parents and students know what was coming, and when test scores came out “everyone kept breathing,” Murphy said.
So far, Portland teachers are working mostly on understanding how to best adapt, said Kelly.
“The teachers are nervous because change is hard,” she said. “They haven’t had the time to really process what it means.”