Redwood City, Calif. — High school math students are given a chart of different speeding fines in Massachusetts, Florida and New York, and are asked to calculate how much a fine would cost at different speeds in different states.
In another classroom, third graders are asked to imagine a lemonade stand and figure out how many lemons, cups and other supplies they’ll need to set it up. The test might ask: “Imagine you are at your very own lemonade stand. What would you do to prepare it? How might you keep track of the number of cups you sell?”
These questions, called Performance Tasks, are the kinds of things public school kids across the country will be tested on with Smarter Balanced Assessments as part of the new Common Core State Standards.
Educators this reporter spoke to on and off the record were unanimous that Common Core has excellent potential for high-achieving students, and Subathra Ramanathan was no exception. Ramanathan is an Indian American student teacher at North Star Academy, a magnet school in Redwood City that serves gifted students in grades 3-8.
“I think that the CCSS provides a way in which some of the high achieving kids can widen their repertoire of learning,” she told India-West. “Simultaneously, the CCSS also allows the curriculum to slow down so that students can demonstrate in multiple ways that they are ‘getting’ something.”
In an effort to bring their teachers up to speed with the standards and the ways kids will be tested on them, school districts around the country are offering specialized, in-depth training sessions.
An India-West reporter and other ethnic news reporters sat in on one such session, at the headquarters of the Redwood City School District here. Two dozen public school teachers are gathered in a conference room, hashing out the ways they will make sense of the new Common Core State Standards — while not only teaching their kids, but testing them at the same time. One gets the feeling it is like learning to surf in 30-foot waves.
This article is part of our four-part series about the standards, which were officially put in place in California in 2010 but are only now reaching the critical phase of assessment, or testing (see part one here).
“How are we going to prepare our kids when we can’t ‘game’ the test?” quips Cheryl Bracco, principal of the Redwood City School District. “There are times where they can’t get the answer, per se, but if they can show the logical sequencing and critical thinking that led to their answer, they may get full credit.”
Bracco is talking about the Smarter Balanced Assessments, which will be administered in 3rd-through-8th grade, and 11th grade, classrooms around the state in April and May of 2015.
(A future article in this series will explore testing in more detail).
The tests will be administered online, using handheld computers, laptops and netbooks. As with much of the Common Core material, acing it isn’t about memorizing facts and spitting them out: it’s about deeper understanding of fewer subject areas, and cultivating the ability to express what one’s learned to peers and teachers.
Forty-six states have adopted CCSS guidelines. The California State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards in August of 2010, and it will take several years to fully implement them in terms of curriculum, instructional materials and assessments, though some schools have made good progress already thanks to grants from the California Academic Partnership Program and other agencies.
The CCSS differ from previous methodologies by stressing English Language Arts as a core element of science, history, math and even physical education — and by working more directly toward college- and career-readiness by emphasizing skills such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration.
Cregg Ramich, Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for the South San Francisco Unified School District, said in a conference call with ethnic media that the entire paradigm has changed from a teacher’s perspective.
“In a typical classroom from our generation, you see the teacher up front, showing examples of how to take math problems through the steps to a solution. The teacher would do some, the students would follow the example of the teacher, and then get many smaller problems to solve on their own. And their homework would have the same problems.”
“Well,” he continued, “Math in the common core asks us to keep doing some of that, but also for students to have many chances to make [sense] out of complex math problems. The teacher is giving real-world problems using the concepts that the kids are learning to make meaning of a real-world math situation.” Hence, lessons on lemonade and speeding tickets.
Big changes will appear in the way it’s presented to students, and especially in the use of Computer Adaptive Testing, which adjusts to a student’s ability by basing the difficulty of future questions on previous answers.
“The new testing is all done on computers (which can be a logistical nightmare for schools with limited technological resources) and asks students to do a lot more in-depth analysis, synthesizing of resources, and writing,” Vandana Makker, an Indian American high school English teacher with the San Lorenzo Unified School District, told India-West in an e-mail.
“It’s quite overwhelming, and, to be honest, some of it was pretty complicated even for me.”
More than 20 percent of California’s K-12 students are designated as English Learners, representing more than 60 languages. So the stricter requirements of Common Core, and the new demands on students to express themselves in academic language, is creating a unique challenge.
“CCSS does seem to favor the linguistically literate, and in that sense most Indian Americans who are fairly conversant with English will have an initial edge over equally talented children who may not have English in their wheelhouse,” explained teacher Subathra Ramanathan.
“[But] I do worry about English as Second Language students because we have added a lot more language requirements to areas that didn’t have a lot of it (math and science) and I hope that the teachers are given enough resources and training to help those students. I really would like the ‘common’ piece to be true: equal access for all students, no matter their ethnicity or economic circumstances.”
Makker adds, “The old standards had very narrow and particular instructions for specific vocabulary to be taught at each grade level with regard to literary analysis; the CCSS provide more flexibility, which is nice.”
What does all this mean to Indian Americans? Parents in this highly educated demographic are giving their children a leg up even before the first day of school. Indian American parents tend to have high expectations, often teach their children to read even before they enter the school system, and show great interest in their children’s education, engaging in educational activities at home. In an interesting thesis written in 2010 by Toral Sanghvi of Syracuse University, Sanghvi demonstrated that high levels of ethnic identification as Indian were even linked to better academic skills.
Indian American parents would do well to talk to their children’s teachers about Common Core and how the students and their families can more fully understand what they mean.
Lori Musso, administrator of Curriculum and Instruction Services for the San Mateo County Office of Education, spoke to India-West as part of the conference call with reporters Feb. 4.
“It’s important for parents to know that the Common Core State Standards are not just something the state decided to do — we really looked intently at how we could prepare students for college and careers,” she told India-West. “We want every student to have the opportunity to do whatever they want to do. That means that when they leave high school, they can be equipped to enter any college of their choice.
“What we’re hearing from businesses and colleges also is that it’s so vital for students to be able to communicate with each other, that they can problem-solve, that they can read multiple texts and synthesize and analyze that. I know, as a parent myself, that what is very comforting to me is that these Common Core State Standards were developed with the students in mind.
“The end goal of all of this change is so that my child can be successful, my child has options, and my child can compete in this global society.”
(This four-part series of Common Core stories is produced in collaboration with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and New America Media.)