Educational standards determine what students should know by the time they finish each grade. Whether a student has mastered the material or not is measured through end-of-course testing.
Tennessee’s journey to the Common Core State Standards began with a desire to increase the challenge and practicality of what is being taught.
The Tennessee Diploma project was begun as a way to increase graduation rates and the number of students who were ready for college or to start a career. As a way to further education reform, Tennessee entered the Race to the Top competition.
Tennessee was named a winner of Race to the Top federal funding in 2010.
One of the required reforms was adopting the Common Core State Standards.
“The major difference in the shift to Common Core Standards [from] all the other shifts we’ve had — Tennessee hasn’t met a set of standards we didn’t like — … The difference in Common core is the instructional practices that come along with it,” said Jared Bigham, director for career and college readiness at SCORE, or the State Collaborative On Reforming Education, a group advocating the new standards.
These instructional practices encourage interacting with the information being presented while it is being taught, rather then simply taking notes. Students are continually asked the question “Why?”
Bigham said the greatest strength of the new standards is the critical thinking it requires of students.
“The standards are now what I call ‘why’ and ‘how’ standards, versus the old way of ‘what,’” Bigham said.
Named because they address the core subjects, the new standards were developed for math and English/language arts.
“Sen. (Bill) Frist and SCORE were one of the first groups pushing for higher standards in Tennessee and advocating for the adoption of Common Core,” Bigham said.
“SCORE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps highlight best practices around the state, and we really believe that Common Core is one of these best practices. It’s our job to help make sure that all stakeholders have high expectations for our students.”
The standards focus, starting in kindergarten, on preparing students for life after high school, whether they follow a college path or a career one.
“Before we adopted Common core (under) the old standards in Tennessee, on the outside we were saying we were preparing kids for college, and based on our assessment when you would look at our proficiency rates, over 80 percent of our kids were proficient on our end-of course exams. … But then when they would take something like the ACT exam only 16 percent of students were actually making a high enough score to be considered college and career ready,” Bigham said.
ACT scores are one of the indicators used to determine how ready a student is for college.
He said this data provided “an eye opener” as to how students compared to those in other states.
Common Core State Standards build on top of each other from kindergarten to 12th grade, providing more continuity than previous standards, Bigham said.
For example, the English language Arts 3.1 standard for third grade requires students to “ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.“
The English language Arts 4.1 standard for fourth grade builds on top of this foundation. The fourth-grade standard requires students to “Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.”
CCSS are copyrighted by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. (All of the standards can viewed at www.corestandards.org.)
Math standards were introduced to teachers last year. This summer teachers are receiving training on the English/language arts standards. The standards will be fully implemented by the 2014-15 school year.
Along with the new standards, come new methods of testing. Instead of the multiple-choice tests many students are used to, tests will now have multifaceted questions. In math, an emphasis will be placed on students explaining how they got the answer they did.
“Why did you use the formula the way you did? Draw a diagraph or a chart to explain that ... being able not just to explain it in numeric form but [through] a couple of sentences explaining why you did what you did,” Bigham cited as a possible example.
Students will be able to receive partial credit if they give a detailed explanation, but get the wrong answer. Students will receive partial credit if they have the correct answer, but don’t provide a detailed explanation of how they got there.
“It’s definitely more challenging, but it’s worth that challenge for the critical thinking skills,” Bigham said.
Math problems will also build on each other, using information from a previous problem to solve the next one.
“The days of a teacher just being able to assign work and go sit behind their desk to wait on that product — it just can’t happen under Common Core. The teacher has to be very engaged with the students as they are working,” Bigham said.
The standards go beyond simple memorization to application of information.
In reading, “close reading” will be emphasized.
It is a process, Bigham said, ‘Where we are really asking students to go beyond remembering facts from a story or a nonfiction document that they have read, to pulling information from that document to justify their answer.”
Some have voiced concern that with the emphasis on nonfiction, called informational texts in the standards, fiction reading will no longer be encouraged. Fiction reading, however, will still be a part of the curriculum.
CCSS sets the academic bar higher presenting additional challenges to students along the way to better prepare them for the challenges of college and the workforce.
With this added challenge comes some added help.
The Tennessee Board of Education has passed a measure requiring school systems to implement Response to Intervention in 2014-15, Bigham said. Response to intervention provides students with extra instruction time if they are having difficulty in reading or math. Students are initially given an extra half hour of instruction in the subject. If a student does not show improvement, an hour of additional instruction is given.
The standards may be more challenging to middle and high school students who have not had the standards that built the foundation, Bigham said.
Teachers, parents, college professors and business leaders gave feedback on the standards before the final draft was validated as rigorous and relevant.
Common Core does not control which textbooks are used, only what guidelines those textbooks must meet. Textbooks and curriculum will still have to be approved by local school boards.