Common Core Watch

Common Core added an important piece to the mounting evidence that
curriculum continues to narrow at the expense of vital academic subjects
with yesterday’s release
of survey data from 1,001 third through 12th-grade teachers. Fully
two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that extra attention to math and
language arts is crowding out other subjects, with the sentiment
particularly strong among elementary-school teachers. Of those who saw
the curriculum narrowing, 93 percent pointed to state tests as the
primary culprits.

Focusing on math and reading at the expense of subjects like science
and social studies requires serious scrutiny, and Common Core should be
applauded for bringing more attention to the issue. Critics of
test-based accountability will be quick to cite the survey as evidence
of the deleterious effects of testing, but the numbers tell a more
complicated story. 90 percent of teachers said that inclusion in state
testing results in a subject being taken more seriously. Of those who
reported crowding out, 60 percent said that the increased focus on math
and language arts boosted test scores and 46 percent agreed that it
resulted in improved skills and knowledge. Is the problem testing
itself, or that test-based accountability is so narrowly focused in most
states?

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No matter where you live, chances are it’s a Common Core state. In
total, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common
Core and are developing plans to implement those standards over the next
several years. While much of the work around implementation is taking
place behind the closed doors of state education departments, the state
Race to the Top applications and the more recent ESEA waivers provide a
window into where states are prioritizing their time and focusing their
resources. Not surprisingly, all states have some kind of plan to align
curriculum, assessment, and professional development around these new
standards. But it’s far from certain whether most states will get it
right.

Below are three ways states can ensure that these newly adopted standards translate to clear student achievement outcomes:

1. Clearly define the student
learning outcomes to which all students will be held accountable once
the CCSS-aligned assessments come down the pike.

Perhaps the most important thing that a state department of education can do for classroom teachers is to clearly
define the student learning outcomes to which students will be held.
The Common Core Standards for ELA and math get us partway there, but
they, like all standards, don’t go far enough. For instance, the
following are three standards from sixth, seventh, and eighth grade,
respectively.

RL.6.1. Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text

...
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The final drafts of the Common Core State Standards were released a
year and a half ago—almost to the day. Anyone who’s read the Race to the
Top applications or the ESEA waivers knows that state departments of
education have begun to put together statewide CCSS implementation
plans. Some states are working to revise curricula. Others are adjusting
current assessment blueprints to reflect CCSS priorities. And all are
thinking about the changes that they will need to make to professional
development and training in the coming months to make this sea change in
standards work for kids.

And yet, 18 months after the standards were released, the assessment consortia have released minimal guidance about how precisely
they will assess the CCSS. In fact, PARCC has yet to release a single
sample assessment item. And, while SMARTER Balanced has released a small
handful of sample items, teachers need far more guidance to understand
the outcomes to which their students will be held accountable in just a
few years.

It’s these critical assessment decisions —which will more clearly
illustrate the outcomes to which students will be held accountable—that should
lay the groundwork for the curricular, professional development, and
instructional decisions that are being made across states as we speak.
Yet, delays in the development of assessments threaten to derail the 150
mile per hour bullet train that was standards creation and adoption and
...

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A few weeks ago, the two groups charged with creating assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) released content specifications/frameworks (guidelines that can helpful inform curriculum) for public review and feedback.

These frameworks are the first real glimpse we've had into how each consortium will be assessing the CCSS. As part of my role at the Fordham I've submitted feedback directly to both assessment consortia. We decided it would be good to bring the public into this insider conversation. This post is a little longer than usual but Gadfly readers are a smart bunch and we figured you wanted the full monty.

Below is an overview of the feedback I provided to PARCC framework. A second post will cover the feedback I provided to SBAC. We would love to get your thoughts after reading the post, so please take time to add your comments below.

Purpose of the Frameworks (Hint: It's Not to Take Over the World)

The PARCC and SBAC frameworks are written for different purposes. SBAC has released a document that is clearly designed to communicate assessment priorities and to give specific information about how they will test key standards. By contrast, PARCC has created a document that is meant to inform curriculum planning. It lists content priorities, but does not provide information about how those priorities will be assessed....

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A few weeks ago, the two groups charged with creating assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)?the?SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the?Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)?released ?content specifications/frameworks? (guidelines that can helpful inform curriculum) for public review and feedback.

Below is an overview of the feedback I provided to SBAC. A previous post summarized the feedback I provided to PARCC on their ELA content frameworks. We would love to get your thoughts after reading the post, so please take time to add your comments below.

Overall, while SBAC has produced a clear and detailed document that will help teachers begin to align their curriculum, instruction, and assessment around CCSS, these content specifications raise some concerns about how faithful the SMARTER Balanced assessments will be to the spirit and purpose of the standards themselves. PARCC has not yet released detailed assessment specifications, so we can't yet say whether their plans will align more closely with the spirit of the CCSS. Hopefully they will more clearly outline an alternative assessment plan.

Purpose of the Framework

The SBAC content specifications ?are intended to ensure that the assessment system [being developed] accurately assesses the full range of the standards.? To that end, the framework specifies five ?critically important claims about student learning? that will ?serve as the basis for the Consortium's system of summative and interim assessments and its formative assessment support for teachers.? Those five claims are:...

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Last June, the Wyoming Board of Education adopted the Common Core, making the Equality State one of the first states to do so. And implementation of the core standards has begun in earnest, with teachers around the state beginning to align their curriculum and instruction to the new standards.

Now it seems like Wyoming lawmakers are beginning to question the Board's decision and have actually told districts to ?slow down implementing standards not yet adopted.? (See here.)

In short, it seems that last year's adoption decision by the State Board did little more than include the Common Core ELA and math standards ?in the next revision of the Wyoming Content and Performance Standards,? which is currently underway. And those standards are still being vetted and changes can still be made through the end of this year. (See here for more.) And now lawmakers are starting to get cold feet and they're trying to decide whether the challenge the adoption decision writ large.

What's more, even if Wyoming does move forward the Common Core ELA and math standards, there is still some question about whether the state will opt to administer the assessments developed by one of the national assessment consortia, or whether it will opt to go it alone. (Wyoming joined the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) as a participating state, but has not yet fully committed to implement the assessment system.) Superintendent of Public Instruction, Cindy Hill, assures that "the Common Core standards will...

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Adding fuel to a small but growing anti-Common Core fire, Andrew Porter penned an op-ed in Education Week this week that questioned the value and rigor of the Common Core ELA and math standards. He explains:

I hoped that new national curriculum standards would be better than the state standards they replaced, and that new student assessments would be better, too.

I wish I could say that our progress toward common-core standards has fulfilled my hopes. Instead, it seems to me that the common-core movement is turning into a lost opportunity.

His critique of the Common Core is grounded in a study that he and a team of U Penn researchers conducted that compared the both the topics covered and the ?cognitive demand? of the Common Core standards with the state standards they are going to replace. (According to Porter and his team, there are five categories of cognitive demand: memorize; perform procedures; demonstrate understanding; conjecture, generalize, prove; and solve non-routine problems. All objectives from the state and Common Core English Language Arts and math standards are grouped under one of these headings.)

Before even diving into a discussion of the substance of their analysis, the metric that Porter et al use is problematic. The researchers dive immediately into the weeds by dividing content into different topics and categorizing each objective under different headings. And, by doing so, Porter and his team lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Take, for example, a common...

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Every so often educators and reformers think, if we're educating kids for the future, we need to do a better job of adapting our education system to meet the needs of tomorrow. That our education systems needs to, in some sense, ?get with the times? so that we can better serve our students today.

The latest argument to that effect comes from a book (Now You See It) written by Cathy N. Davidson and related blog post from Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times. In her piece, Heffernan argues:

??fully 65 percent of today's grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn't been invented yet?For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it's high time we redesigned American education.?

And so, because today's students will be doing things that we can't imagine, we need to rethink the kinds of work we're assigning today. Including research papers, which Heffernan argues have outlived their usefulness:

Teachers and professors regularly ask students to write papers. Semester after semester, year after year, ?papers? are styled as the highest form of writing. And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.

Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form

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I've already wondered aloud (see here) whether states' quick adoption of the Common Core was more an example of people seeing what they wanted to see than evidence of some broad consensus about what the actual standards meant for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. An article in last week's Education Week does little to assuage those concerns.

The article focused on the CCSS ?publishers' criteria? that was recently released by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. (See here and here for more.) For those who want to see the Common Core faithfully implemented, it raised two chief concerns.

First, Barbara Cambridge, the state director of NCTE's Washington chapter, criticized the publishers' criteria because she feels that they ?signal a usurpation of teacher judgment in ways that are alarming? and because she believes the document shortchanges ?the value of children's own experiences in responding to what they read.?

?The way we learn something new is to attach it to something we already know,? she said. ?So of course what kids bring to school isn't sufficient, but it's important. And to imply we shouldn't spend time on it, with 1st and 2nd graders, is just bad advice.?

Second, Barbara A. Kapinus of the NEA felt that the criteria veered too far into the world of pedagogy. Kapinus argued that, by saying that ?fluency should be a particular focus? of second grade reading programs,

?teachers [may] put a premium on it, despite the developmental variations in when children

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Within weeks of the release of the Common Core State ELA and math standards, textbook publishers had already launched marketing campaigns for their ?CCSS-aligned? curriculum materials. What that label really meant, exactly, was open for much debate.

Enter David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. Last week, the two lead ELA writers for the CCSS ELA standards released ?Publishers' Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy? for grades K-2 and 3-12 in an attempt to guide the curriculum writers who are genuinely trying to align their materials to the CCSS. It will also be an invaluable resource for teachers, schools, and districts who are trying to navigate the already crowded space of CCSS-aligned materials.

Coleman and Pimentel are careful to note that these criteria ?are not meant to dictate classroom practice,? but instead are ?intended to direct curriculum developers and publishers to be purposeful and strategic in both what to include and what to exclude in instructional materials.? In short, Coleman and Pimentel attempt to clarify what materials would be worthy of the ?CCSS-aligned? label.

While the guidelines do include criteria for everything ranging from writing and grammar to research, the bulk of the guidance is focused on reading. The authors note that, in order to be truly CCSS-aligned, reading materials must:

  • Include texts that are appropriately complex. The guidelines note that ?far too often, students who have fallen behind are given only less complex texts rather than the support they
  • ...
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