Are You Ready for Common Core Math?
With new Common Core State Standards assessments in K12 mathematics due to be in use by the start of the 2014-2015 school year, many district administrators and teachers do not know what they should know about them now and are not taking steps they should be taking to prepare for them. While they are aware that the assessments are being developed, educators generally do not understand what that means to them, according to Doug Sovde, senior advisor to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers (PARCC).
The assessments are based on the Common Core State Standards that districts are using to revise their curricula and instruction in math as well as English Language Arts and Literacy. “If they get to know the standards, they will know the assessments,” Sovde declares.
The Common Core assessments will probe more deeply than assessments do now into what students are learning in math and how they are learning it. “I think we’ll see some questions that apply to real-world settings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if students have to describe in writing how they got an answer rather than just filling in a blank with it,” says Richard A. Carranza, deputy superintendent of the San Francisco (Calif.) Unified School District, one district that has actively begun preparing for the assessments.
Another major change that districts should be aware of is that the questions students are asked will be delivered online and answered online instead of on paper. While that will provide immediate results to teachers and administrators, it might require districts to install more computers and other technological tools, which could raise questions about how they will pay the costs in a period of tight budgets.
One reason many districts are not paying much attention to the forthcoming assessments is that they are not known in their final form yet. Carranza says, “We’re trying to take an educated guess at what we think they will look like.”
PARCC is one of two multistate consortia working to develop the assessments; the other is the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). “No one has had much time to get to know either of them,” says Melissa Young, mathematics manager on the instructional support team in the superintendent’s office of the Cincinnati Public Schools.
Even though the final assessments have not been released, some districts are finding that they have already engendered internal discord. “Some teachers love them, but others hate them. Some are very in tune with what’s coming, while others are saying students can’t take a math test with a computer,” reports Young.
More Rigorous Tests
As PARCC and SBAC have revealed in documents available on their Web sites, students will face more rigorous questions about both mathematical practice and content. The assessments will test students on practices such as making sense of problems, reasoning abstractly and quantitatively, constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, modeling with mathematics, using appropriate tools strategically, communicating precisely, and looking for and making use of structure.
“Students will be assessed on extended problem-solving and performance tasks and will need to show their reasoning,” says J. Michael Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). District math curriculum directors and state supervisors, he says, “need to help teachers implement the Standards for Mathematical Practice and connect them to math content. That is a big change for them.”
As the U.S. Department of Education reported when Secretary Arne Duncan announced the grants to the two consortia in September 2010, each is taking its own approach to developing the assessments. PARCC is replacing a single end-of-year accountability test with a series of assessments throughout the year that will be averaged into one score for accountability purposes. SBAC will ask students tailored questions based on their previous answers. It will continue to use one end-of-year test for accountability purposes but will create a series of interim tests to inform students, parents and teachers about whether students are on track.
Sovde, a former mathematics teacher and principal in the Bellevue (Wash.) Public Schools, says one of the tests PARCC is developing is a diagnostic assessment for the start of the year. He declares about the optional test, “If I were a district administrator, I would be jumping all over it, because it’s going to give you a good handle right up front about where your kids are.” All the new assessments will measure the abilities of students to solve problems, think conceptually, reason mathematically, and demonstrate more skills than rote memorization. “That’s going to be a shift, a different way of doing business,” says Sovde. The final, end-of-year summative assessment will require students to use computers or handheld devices to solve problems or think about mathematical issues. “It won’t be just a paper-and-pencil test put on a screen,” Sovde explains.
In early February, PARCC announced the release of the Educator Leader Cadre (ELC) Invitation to Negotiate (ITN). The ELCs are a major part of PARCC’s work to engage educators in implementing CCSS and developing and implementating the assessments. The ITN purpose is to procure services to develop and interact with K16 educators to build expertise in CCSS and PARCC over three years. This will be accomplished through face-to-face meetings, online modules and professional development webinars. Cadre members will discuss best practices around using and implementating review sample tasks and model instructional units, and identify ways of disseminating information through the network on how the PARCC resources can inform classroom practice.
Prepping for the Inevitable
As they await more information about the assessments, some districts are doing what they can to get ready for them. The Ventura County (Calif.) Office of Education scheduled a daylong workshop last month on preparing for the new Common Core assessment system, with a presentation by Susan A. Gendron, policy coordinator for SBAC and formerly Maine’s commissioner of education. In the Murfreesboro (Tenn.) City Schools, a teacher at Northfield Elementary School used candies and a deck of cards as props to teach fourth-graders about probability in an exercise applying math to real-life experiences, a skill the assessments will test.
The Ohio Department of Education “has provided us with a lot of documents,” says Neal Bluel, teacher leader for K12 science and math for grades 4 to 12 in the Upper Arlington (Ohio) City School District. “We’re getting comfortable with the idea of learning as we go and planning the best we can.”
Debora Binkley, associate superintendent in the Upper Arlington district, says the district has to first get the curriculum aligned with Common Core standards. “We’ve worked pretty hard to be sure everybody knows what’s going on, and that includes our teachers, who are actively involved in writing our curriculum,” adds Emilie Greenwald, associate principal of Upper Arlington High School. With a three-year, $3 million grant from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, the San Francisco Unified School District is partnering with the San Francisco School Alliance and the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin on a project to help the district align its curriculum, instruction and assessment practices and policies to the Common Core standards. The Bechtel Foundation, named for the philanthropist/business leader who created it in 1957, is dedicated to “advancing a productive, vibrant, and sustainable California,” its Web site states.
The SFUSD started its project last fall by introducing the math standards to “every constituent group in the district, from the central administration to all school administrators and teachers,” says Carranza. The objective, he explains, is for “everyone who touches a student instructionally to have an opportunity to spend time with the standards and understand what they are, how they work,” and how they are similar to or different from the current standards. Toward that end, Carranza adds, the SFUSD is using the Dana Center as “professional development mentors to make sure this is relevant to all of our instructional staff.”
Policy changes in the district might be necessary in connection with the new assessments, whatever they look like, Carranza admits, ”We are in the process of reviewing all of our board policies, and some of those questions will come up in that review,” he says.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco and other districts, delivering the new CCSS math assessments online is causing concern among some administrators and teachers about how their districts will pay for the new computers, hardware, software and professional development they might need. The Cincinnati district is unsure about possible costs of new technology and professional development, says Young, partly because of continuing developments in technology that make it difficult to select products. “I’m seeing more and more tools out there for students to take tests,” she says.
“A lot goes into being able to do it, including the technological infrastructure,” says Carranza. “I’m not sure we’re ready to do that.” With additional funding from a tax approved by San Francisco voters three years ago, the district already is upgrading bandwidth and looking at how it can provide the hardware that schools will need for online assessments. But cost is “a huge issue” in this economy, says Carranza, and while online delivery is “predicated on a wonderful idea, it’s an unfunded mandate and creates another level of requirements that at least our district isn’t prepared to assume at this point.”
PARCC and SBAC awarded Pearson a contract in January to develop a new Technology Readiness Tool. This new open source tool, with the assistance of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, will support state education agencies as they work with local education agencies to evaluate and determine needed technology and infrastructure upgrades for the new online assessments. “For districts that don’t make much use of technology right now, this is going to be a major shift,” Sovde acknowledges. “They will have to start thinking about how they will get those resources.”
Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer to District Administration.