Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Late Common Core Adopters Struggle with Politics

Controversial Common Core testing is new in Ohio, 
but Kentucky offers clues for the future

This from WCPO:
The storm rages over the Common Core-based standards as schools across Ohio finish the first round of new standardized tests, with advocates promising a better education for children and opponents expecting just the opposite.

Anyone who wants a possible preview of what Ohio can expect can look south to Kentucky.

The Bluegrass state was the first in the nation to adopt Common Core standards in 2010, with schools teaching new lesson plans based on those standards beginning statewide in the 2011-12 school year.

WCPO asked experts in the state capitol, prominent conservative and liberal-leaning education advocates and local educators, to weigh in on the success of the state's reforms so far.

The early verdict?

After three years progress has been made including:
• More than 62 percent of middle and high school students are on track to be ready for college or career, up from 54 percent in 2013 and 47 percent in 2012.
• Four-year graduation rate up to 87.4 percent compared to 86.1 percent in 2013.

• Fewer schools in the state's "needs improvement" category (636 compared to 779 in 2013) and more in the "distinguished" category (289 compared to 179 in 2013).
"We're showing improvement in the testing as we go forward with the accountability model and assessment set we're using. I don't think we have final products yet," said Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a non-profit education advocate in Kentucky.

Kentucky's place at the front of the line was serendipitous.

The legislature passed a bill in 2009 that called for new, more rigorous standards that could be measured against students from across the country to elevate achievement in the state – just as governors and educators from across the country were completing work on creating the Common Core standards.

Common Core was re-named Kentucky Core Academic Standards, and the state developed its own set of tests, which are administered by two outside vendors – Pearson and ACT.

Ohio, by contrast, adopted Pearson's PARCC test rather than developing its own for English and math assessments and AIM tests for social studies and science.

'We Went a Little Crazy'

Like in Ohio, testing is extensive. But the state has had virtually no parents keeping their children out of school tests compared to the sizable rebellion occurring in Ohio this year.

Kentucky Education Secretary Terry Holliday said the state encourages school districts to evaluate their overall testing regimen to eliminate redundancies and keep the emphasis on classroom learning.

But he agrees that the combination of federal, state and local tests have tilted too far toward testing in recent years. "We ask every district to make sure they analyze why they're testing. The state and federal testing is less than 2 percent of the school year. Local testing is the challenging part," he told WCPO. "I do agree that since No Child Left Behind (which requires states to test English and math annually in many grades) that we went a little crazy with paper and pencil tests."

Few disagree about the testing question, including Silberman. "There's a lot of pushback around the country that there is too much testing, and I agree with that. It's gotten to a point that it's being overdone," he said.

His organization advocates using a tool called ACHIEVE that schools can use to evaluate what tests are most effective and which are redundant or not worth the time.

Connecting Learning With Real World

While lawmakers, school administrators and teachers were working on plans to retrain teachers and implement the standards statewide, the Kenton County School District just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati jumped at the chance to join a pilot program, adopting new standards in 2010.

"For me, it was about wanting not only more challenging standards but finding real ways to connect the learning to the real world so that it was more relevant for students," said Tim Hanner, who was Kenton County's superintendent when it adopted the standards. He is now president of NaviGo, a college and career preparation consultancy.

Both as an insider and now an outsider, Hanner likes what he has seen as a result of the change.

"We have educators in our state working harder than ever before," he said. "It has upped the expectations. As a taxpayer, that's what I want. How they get there varies from district to district and even school to school."

Not everyone is sold on Kentucky's version of Common Core. Richard Innes, education analyst for Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a conservative think tank in Kentucky, points to the state's Explorer test, given to eighth graders last fall, and a drop in test scores in English, math and reading as a troublesome indicator that the new standards aren't working.

"The scores are down across the board. That should not be happening if Common Core is working," said Innes, a retired Air Force flight instructor who lives in Northern Kentucky. "Explorer is developed by ACT. Basically you can think of it as the ACT for eighth graders. It's linked and equated to the actual ACT benchmarks."

Nancy Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Education, said about the EXPLORE scores: "Educators will tell you it takes three to five years for reforms to take hold. They also will tell you it is not a good idea to rely on one test to determine student achievement, but to consider a number of outputs."

Other test scores for middle school students have risen, she pointed out, and state ACT scores rose in 2014 to an average 19.4, up from 19.2 in 2013 and 19.0 in 2012.

Innes said the problem with Kentucky's system starts with the Common Core standards, which he criticized for being developed and left without a national program for revisions.

"Nobody gets the standards right first time out of the box. A real standard operating system has a permanent ongoing service organization that will answer questions and modify the standards," he said.

The standards, he said, are too broad and difficult to measure, leaving it up to individual school districts and schools to interpret well or poorly.

Four years in, Kentucky is working to refine and improve its standards, actively asking the public to weigh in on its Kentucky Core Academic Standards Challenge website, which will remain active through April 30.

The state is asking teachers, parents, and anyone else with an opinion to "give their feedback and input as well as offer constructive, actionable suggestions on how to improve the standards. All the input received will be reviewed by staff and used by staff and the KBE to make any needed revisions," said Nancy Rodriguez, a state education spokesperson.

Innes points out that whatever fixes Kentucky makes will distance its standards from other states' versions of Common Core – defeating the goal of being able to compare student performance in Kentucky to that of students in any other state.

Is Answer National Set of Standards?

In a perfect world, a national set of standards would be helpful, he said.

"If we could really get it right and make proper allowances for obvious (exceptions) like learning disabled cases, and if we could really build something that was quite specific and detailed, then I might be in favor of (national standards)," Innes said. "That worked very well in the Air Force, but trying to expand that out for a good K-12 standard may not be possible."

"There are so many varying opinions about what our school system should look like that whether we can reach any kind of common consensus may not be possible," Innes said.

If he had his way, Innes said, he would strongly consider replacing Kentucky's version of Common Core with Massachusetts' pre-Common Core testing standards and tests.

"That might be a good way to get us up and running with a set of proven standards. Taking a look at Common Core and trying to fix it could be a good option, but I'm not sure it's manageable," he said.

Replacing the Common Core standards would be an expensive proposition, according to the Kentucky Department of Education, which estimates the cost of retraining teachers, creating new tests, etc., at $35 million to $40 million.

"The talk of going back is mind-blowing to our folks," Hanner said, referring to teachers and administrators he knows. "In my opinion, the thought of going back would be take us back years in education."

'Asking Kids To Think More'

Innes acknowledges that replacing standards would be expensive and stressful for teachers who trained to teach to Kentucky's new core standards.

"Why would you want to go on wasting more than $12,000 per student (in estimated total education costs) to get those kind of results? We're wasting billions if we're not getting this program right," he said.

Barb Martin, Kenton County assistant superintendent, helped her district adopt the Common Core pilot in 2010, and she counters that it is working.

The district, which is ranked in the state's middle category of "proficient," scored an overall 71.4 in accountability, up from 67.3 in 2013. Its four-year graduation rate rose to 91 percent from 90.2 percent in 2013, and the percentage of students that tests deemed ready for college or career soared to an all-time high of 62.5 percent from 57.2 percent in 2103 and 43 percent in 2010.

"I think the standards are more rigorous," Martin said. "Sometimes they're more frustrating. We're just asking kids to think more."

Asked where her district still needs improvement, Martin said, "I think part of it is retraining our teachers. In middle school math, for example, we need to make sure that teachers are ready to teach higher concepts."

For critics who say Common Core is a federal takeover of local school curriculum, she invites critics to explore examples of the standards. One in English, for example, calls for students to analyze two sources of information about a given topic – chosen by the teacher or school, not the government – and asks the student to analyze both sides for veracity, make comparisons of their arguments and make a judgment on which argument is stronger.

Silberman likes the focus of Kentucky's core assessments.

"The public deserves to know how the schools are performing and there should be accountability for those dollars. We have a pretty strong focus on whether or not kids are college or career ready," he said.

Asked for his advice to states like Ohio that are earlier in the implementation process: "The standards in every state are going to stand on their own, but the implementation portion is what will make it successful or not. I think there have to be groups out there who disseminate accurate information."

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