Getting to the Common Core: Local educators adopt new philosophy in learning

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California is among 45 states to adopt national Common Core standards for primary and secondary education. (stock.xchng photo)

Paige Nelson

STAR testing in California public schools is history, thanks to new legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 2.

The bill eliminates the traditional standardized test and replaces it with a new, computerized assessment aligned with national Common Core standards.

The former exams were administered under the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting Program, commonly known as STAR.

“The old standards weren’t streamlined,” said Leighangela Brady, assistant superintendent of educational services for the Encinitas Union School District. “Whatever teachers decided to teach was what students got.”

Common Core is designed to increase students’ college and career readiness by emphasizing critical thinking and conceptual learning in language arts and math.

The computerized test is adaptive, meaning when a student answers a question, the program will be able to increase or decrease the difficulty level of the exam to assess the student’s understanding of the concept.

Brady said a lot of the new software has a game-like feel and gives students immediate feedback on their progress. She said that as a result, students are actively engaged and excited to learn.

“Students are forced to take creative approaches to problem solving, rather than memorizing and regurgitating information,” said Shelley Petersen, assistant superintendent of instructional services for the Del Mar Union School District.

In an effort to kick-start the program, the state allocated $1.5 billion in funding to school districts. Educators will have two years to invest the money in new technology, infrastructure or professional development.

Like many other school districts in San Diego, Brady said the Encinitas district will use a significant portion of the money to train teachers and purchase instructional materials.

“There’s a little bit of fear among the teachers to be curriculum designers,” Brady said. “We’re giving them tools and asking them to be mindful planners.”

Brady said the Encinitas district is requiring all teachers to train at least seven to 10 days throughout the year. They will also have up to two hours a week to collaborate with each other for lesson planning.

“Teachers are working hard to shift their instruction to meet the new standards,” said Terry Decker, Solana Beach School District’s assistant superintendent of instructional services.

Decker said that over summer, the Solana Beach district brought together teachers from each grade level to write a new scope and sequence for math, using Common Core guidelines. He said that type of work will help teachers frame their lesson plans for the year.

“Textbooks and resources are just that — resources,” Petersen said. “The text is valuable, but should never be what drives instruction.”

In preparation for Common Core, educators will administer field tests in the spring to grades 3-8 and 11 in either language arts or math, but not both. Full testing will not begin until 2015.

California is among 45 states to adopt these standards, but one of the first to risk losing federal funding by ditching the standardized “No Child Left Behind” test early.

The decision has sparked debate among state lawmakers, as the trial testing would not generate any individual student scores, performance reports or statewide results for an entire year.

The intent of Common Core is to raise academic standards nationwide, but some critics have said it imposes a “one-size-fits-all approach” and is bringing the level of expectation down.

Petersen said critics of the standards fail to see the difference between learning in a traditional classroom versus a 21st century classroom.

“I would challenge critics to go on a learning walk in a Common Core classroom and see for themselves,” Petersen said. “There isn’t passive learning in that kind of setting.”

Brady said only time will tell for sure if Common Core is successful, but she has hope.

“We’re not just teaching to the lowest denominator — we’re building on a foundation,” Brady said. “The only thing we’re required to do is teach students to demonstrate understanding and apply that knowledge. I think we’re raising the bar.”

Paige Nelson is a North County freelance writer