Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools

Few things excite the passions of concerned parents more than substantive changes to the ways in which their children are taught and their progress is measured. The new “Common Core” set of standards for teaching and learning being enacted nationwide has a lot of parents and teachers very excited, though there are some who are understandably concerned about what Common Core is, what it does, and how it will affect their school-age children. While not exhaustive, this article will provide a brief overview of Common Core, as well as address some of the apprehensions parents have about Common Core that have evolved over the several years since the new standards were announced.

Common Core State Standards, or CCSS, were developed by educators, adopted by 43 states, and implemented voluntarily by communities and districts to help prepare students for a complex and unpredictable future. The motivation for these new standards was the overwhelming consensus that “No Child Left Behind” requirements were actually impeding learning and the development of critical thinking skills in students. Further, they were hamstringing teachers by forcing them to “teach to the test” — or face dire consequences. Common Core seeks to move away from a “Test-and-Punish” policy, and move towards a “Build-and-Support” approach, says former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. Honig also served as the Chair of the Instructional Quality Commission, an advisory body to the California State Board of Education.

While states like New York and Kentucky have seen considerable consternation surrounding Common Core — due to what many argue was a “too much, too soon” approach — California’s approach has been more measured. There has been less reliance on testing, while local districts have been empowered and provided more autonomy and resources necessary to improve. While there is not — and never will be — unanimous support for Common Core, even among educators, the majority have embraced these new expectations embedded in CCSS, and feel they will make an important difference in how children learn and how we measure our classroom outcomes.

In the past, testing was largely relegated to one end-of-year assessment, called “summative” because it ostensibly summed up the year’s work. The first major shift, then, is that there will now be three components to assessment, rather than one single end-of-year assessment. Summative tests will be retained as an important means of identifying progress that has been made. In addition, there will be interim assessments in the middle of the year, for teachers and districts to gauge how and what students are learning, and to make adjustments if they are not. The third component involves process. A digital library will be available to teachers year-long, providing strategies, tools, and resources for determining how students are learning as the year progresses.

The second major shift involves test targets — what are the goals? Instead of having students merely accumulate knowledge, the Common Core targets are now designed to measure how well students understand the material and can use their new learning. Along with reading to follow a story, for example, students will learn to read in order to cite evidence and draw logical conclusions. They will use math to solve real-world challenges, rather than merely picking out the correct multiple-choice answer.

The new tests are not just harder versions of the old tests; they are truly testing new things — ways of thinking and analyzing information. A fourth grade math question, for example, will have students select and use the right tools to solve a problem and interpret the results in a given context. If you or your child is interested in seeing what kinds of questions will be on the California Common Core tests, you can take a sample test here (http://sbac.portal.airast.org/practice-test/).

These new tests are made possible by newer technology involving computer adaptation. Students take the tests on computers that enable them to highlight passages, drag and drop a series of symbols that answer a question, and even react to a correct or incorrect answer by changing the type of question that follows. Rather than requiring five to ten questions to see if a student has mastered a given concept, the new computer adaptation enables students to move ahead to higher levels of questions if they answer the first levels correctly, or step back to a slightly easier version of the same question if they are incorrect.

Why make these changes? “The standards are seen both to embody the kind of education we have long desired for our students,” Honig says, “as well as providing a tremendous opportunity to stimulate much-needed discussions on how best to improve practice at each school and district and develop the collaborative capacity to support such efforts.” In Santa Barbara County, we encourage that collaboration to continue — in the form of a robust, meaningful conversation amongst parents, teachers, and students — as we move forward with Common Core.