Common Core content areas
■ The Arts
■ Comprehensive Health and Physical Education
■ Personal Financial Literacy
■ Reading, Writing and Communicating (English language arts)
■ STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)
■ Social Studies
■ World Languages
■ Colorado English Language Proficiency
From March through the beginning of May, classrooms around Colorado and in Routt County were filled with students completing various state assessment tests. And with those tests comes more attention focused on the widely debated Common Core standards.
Steamboat, South Routt and Hayden school districts first adopted the Colorado Academic Standards and then added the Common Core standards for English language arts and mathematics in 2010. The districts currently are in the process of transitioning to electronic tests and adding Common Core standards for science and social studies.
When the Steamboat Springs School District adopted these new academic standards, Marty Lamansky, the curriculum director, said a “set of minimum targets was established.
“When you take a driving test you have a minimum score you have to get to pass the test,” Lamansky explained. “That is the standard. It is the floor or bottom base level. But there is no cap or ceiling on how successful you can be. By adopting these standards, we have set the floor higher.”
Lamansky also emphasized the “targets” the standards set are just targets and do not guide the students on how to hit the set targets. That is where teachers come in hand.
“If you look at a grade level or class, you have a group of students in the same place.” Lamansky said. “And each one needs to get to the same destination. But each student has a different way of getting to that destination. An analogy I have heard is if you are trying to get to Los Angeles by June 3, the possible routes and modes of transportation are nearly unlimited. But that is your target.”
Lamansky said the standards are the minimum destination in Steamboat, but it is up to teachers to use their creativity and teaching styles to get those students to the minimal level.
Additionally, while the standards are important to overall curriculum, they also encompass a fraction of the district’s curriculum.
Emphasis areas for each principle
■ Focus: Concepts and skills every student should have mastered at each grade level. The overall goal is to make sure students are prepared for postsecondary and workforce pursuits.
■ Coherence: Connecting each grade level vertically as well as connecting the subjects within grade levels horizontally.
■ Rigor: The student’s are tested to the level of mastery, which is defined as “fluency, application and transfer.”
■ All Students, All Standards: The 10 content areas emphasize the importance of teaching the whole child.
Lamansky said other concepts guiding the Steamboat’s curriculum include the required categories of essential questions, enduring understandings, content knowledge, skills and outcomes, assessments (also part of standardized testing), and academic and technical vocabulary.
“One misconception is that standards are everything,” Lamansky said. “They are not. They set the minimum standard. When we add all of the other categories, we are using those to raise the bar on the curriculum.”
Lamansky emphasized the standards do not provide daily instructional techniques and materials.
“The Common Core standards in Steamboat are comparable to standards you would have for a profession,” Lamansky said. “There is a minimum of how you are expected to do your job, but there is no cap. No one says there is a limit to how successful you can do your job. What we have done in the district is set the standards at a high level. So, the floor is at a high level, and there is no ceiling.
“Steamboat practices a guaranteed viable curriculum,” Lamansky continued. “This means every student in a course has the same target, but how teachers get those students there is different, and creativity is encouraged.”
Hayden Superintendent Mike Luppes also said the process of adopting Common Core standards has been smooth but slow. Some of the delay has stemmed from reviewing new teaching materials to make sure they match with new standards as well as reviewing the actual standards.
Luppes also agreed with Lamansky that although actual curriculum ideas have not changed, the creativity and philosophy for teaching has shifted.
“It requires a higher level of thinking and more critical thinking,” Luppes said. “There is more application of the ideas being taught. More integration of the curriculum for functional use is required, rather than a rote memorization of materials.”
An example Luppes gave of the change is a shift in elementary reading and writing materials from fiction literature to nonfiction. Luppes also said Hayden has put an emphasis on looking at standards and anticipating changes to style and content of future tests.
“We must be proactive so that our students are ready for that transition,” Luppes said.
Hayden School Board President Brian Hoza said Hayden teachers instruct toward Common Core standards, but they ultimately strive for a deeper level of learning.
“Our teachers are not only teaching to the standards, they are developing learning competencies,” Hoza said. “The standards require more than answering questions. They require critical thinking.”
According to Hoza, Common Core has created a more complex teaching and learning environment for Hayden teachers. One of the benefits of Common Core, Hoza said, is teachers can get results and adjust lesson plans and teaching methods accordingly.
“We do not disagree with the standards or the intent of the movement and implications toward education,” Hoza said. “However, to examine results from previous years and adjust teaching styles, it creates a level of complexity for our teachers.”
Teachers at Hayden spend extra time collaborating with one another to achieve results.
“The standards give us a measurement of what to strive for for mastery at each grade level,” Hoza said. “Teachers can collaborate within and across grade levels give students the best opportunity to reach those standards.”
Curriculum groups have been created at Hayden, and Hoza said the role of the School Board is to support those curriculum groups and teachers as they strive to instruct students.
Like Steamboat and Hayden, South Routt was early to adopt Common Core standards, district Superintendent Scott Mader said. According to Mader, when the state adopted the Common Core standards, South Routt was close behind.
“We want the students to test well,” Mader said. “If we would have gone a different direction adopting our own district standards, we would have had a more difficult time teaching to state standards already in place.”
South Routt believes in a “blanket form” of adoption, Mader said. That is, each concept is adopted at the same time instead of adopting math, then English language arts and so on.
Mader said South Routt held an open school board session dedicated to Common Core awareness in January, and the attendees “felt like (their) views were heard” and “had a positive response” to Common Core and the upcoming electronic assessments.
Also like Steamboat, South Routt has been piloting electronic tests this year in preparation for next spring’s changes.
“Next year’s tests will be completely computer driven,” Mader said.
The Colorado Measures of Academic Success is what many think the future of testing will be like in Colorado as well as the rest of the nation. CMAS tests the content areas of science and social studies and will be completely electronic beginning next academic year.
The transition to electronic testing for Steamboat, Hayden and South Routt has been relatively smooth. But because of the size of the districts, Steamboat has had to make more changes such as creating new testing areas and acquiring new computers. While the amount of electronic testing is increasing, it is not new.
“Students have been doing online testing of various kinds for quite awhile now,” Lamansky said. “But we have not done state and national assessments online.”
Steamboat district’s Technology Director Tim Miles has been working on creating more electronic testing space in the Steamboat and South Routt districts. Strawberry Park Elementary School and Steamboat Middle School have seen the most changes thus far. A testing lab has been relocated in Strawberry Park, and a new lab was created in Steamboat Middle School. The number of computers jumped from 30 to 80 at Strawberry Park while testing computers increased from 90 to 150 at the middle school.
“Our main goal is to not disrupt regular classrooms and class schedules,” Miles said. “The less computers and testing spaces we have, the longer it takes students to get through the testing and the longer is alters their regular learning schedule. We want to avoid that as much as possible.”
With new and electronic testing also comes training for teachers and others proctoring the assessments. Miles said proctors have been trained and the laptop Chromebook is the model of computer being purchased to help create a smooth transition.
“Chromebook is the way to go,” Miles said. “It has been the computer with the least amount of technical issues and can be used as a mobile or temporary lab.”
Miles said teachers had concerns with the newness of electronic testing, but after pilot tests at the elementary and middle school levels, teachers largely are feeling good about the new testing. Miles said one remaining issue is getting adequate amounts of computers in each testing location, again, to reduce testing time and classroom disruption.
“We would like to see 200 computers all in one area at the high school and middle school,” Miles said. “This will help create an ideal testing location for students with minimal distraction.”
There currently are 90 computers available for testing at the high school. This spring, Steamboat students in fifth and eighth grades have used the online testing in science and fourth- and seventh-graders have tested a brand new online social studies exam. Next year, all high school seniors will be required to take the science and social studies assessments electronically.
Not only for tests
For Hayden and South Routt, no news is good news as the switch to fully electronic testing has proceeded with minimal issues. Because of the size of the districts, computers already in place have been adequate and will be able to serve assessment needs in the future.
South Routt District School Assessment Coordinator Maggie Bruski said South Routt has been smart in implementing new technology and funding by using general education funds.
“You can never go wrong with new, more and better computers,” Bruski said. “The computers don’t just sit there. We use them for National History Day, Model U.N. and everyday situations.”
Bandwidth issues have been a concern for some school districts across the state; however, Bruski said South Routt uses proctor caching to relieve potential bandwidth issues. Proctor caching is a way to download tests to a local server. South Routt uses the textbook company Pearson for online testing and proctor caching.
“We download the test the night before the test and then students log in online but take the test on a local server,” Bruski said. “Taking the test online, we could probably support about 75 students. By proctor caching, we can have around 1,700 students testing at the same time.”
Hayden also has tried to take advantage of the assessment technological needs to improve overall technology in its district. Limited resources and spaces have made it a little more challenging, Board President Brian Hoza said.
“Right now we are sharing a lab in each school,” Hoza said.
The elementary school has a lab that can be used, but the lab shared between both secondary schools is small.
Steamboat, like South Routt and Hayden, will use added technology for more than testing.
“One myth we have to explode is the equipment is solely for testing,” Lamansky said. “Yes, they are used for testing but they are not sitting idle when we are not testing. They will be turned over to daily instructional practice and will provide more opportunity for students to have technological tools.”
Lamansky acknowledged the overall climate of an online world and school system leads to changes.
“This is not the school a lot of us grew up going to,” Lamasky said. “It is a constant shifting and updating and will not slow down.”
Finding the funding
The adoption of new assessments has brought about the question of how this new testing will be funded.
Nationally, the funding surrounding Common Core largely begins in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which offers districts financial incentives to compete against one another. First, though, each school must adopt the four key areas of reform, two of which include adoption of Common Core standards and better data systems. Since the program’s inception, more than $4 billion has been dedicated to the program.
Additionally, one of the largest private contributors to Common Core funding is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since 2010, the Gates Foundation has spent more than $170 million directly toward development and promotion of Common Core. The federal government has invested about $360 million in developing new standardized tests aligned with Core standards that are being implemented next year.
President Barack Obama’s 2015 education budget includes requests for $300 million for a new Race to the Top – Equity and Opportunity competition and $70 million to expand state data collection systems.
South Routt has seen minimal changes and funding issues.
In Hayden, Superintendent Mike Luppes said most of the additional expenses surrounding Common Core were carved out of the general fund budget. While “some outside funds” were used to hire a private consultant to train elementary staff, the majority of training has been in-house with principals and teachers. The purchase of new teaching materials for standards also included teacher training from consultants from the new material’s publisher to provide the “best implementation of the materials and the standards.”
In Steamboat, Miles said the additional computers and testing space has cost about $550,000. To be completely ready for next year’s testing, Miles predicts another $100,000 will need to be spent. Where the funds will come from still is to be determined, but Miles said the general education fund and School Board have approved his proposal.
Front line perspective
Some of those most affected by Common Core are the teachers on the front lines of implementing new standards and curriculum. And like others involved with Common Core, teachers are largely divided on their sentiments toward Common Core.
In the past month, teachers have joined protesters in New York City against Common Core. Principals in New York State have described the tests as being “poorly designed.” However, groups of teachers in Missouri have been speaking out in support of Common Core, and most states are continuing to roll out their own new standards.
In Colorado, a former Colorado Springs teacher recently posted her letter of resignation on her personal website. In the letter of resignation, she does not leave any secrets on her sentiments toward Common Core. One part of the letter states: “I can no longer be a part of a system that continues to do the exact opposite of what I am supposed to do as a teacher — I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. Instead, the emphasis on Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students.”
In South Routt, Bruski has been a math teacher for 12 years and is the current district assessment coordinator. As a coordinator, teacher and parent, she sees Common Core from many angles.
Bruski said South Routt has been gearing curriculum toward standards since she has been in the district, beginning with the Colorado Assessment Standards. According to Bruski, South Routt teachers believe in Common Core and are “invested in the standards.”
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the rigor and expectations of students with the new standards — especially in math,” Bruski said. “Common Core is an improvement. The previous standards really only covered Algebra I and geometry. Adding Algebra II is an improvement.”
Bruski added that she did not feel as though South Routt teachers are restricted by “teaching toward the standards.”
“The standards do not tell teachers how to teach,” Bruski said. “The teaching is up to us. The standards just lay out expectations. Either way, we will have standards. And these standards provide a global way of thinking and a way for our students to compete at a global level.”
Hayden teachers have a heavy influence of Common Core in their lesson plans. First-year English language arts teacher Kendra DeMicco said she was trained to have lessons “anchored” in the Common Core standards.
“Each of my lessons and units are aimed at meeting one or more standards,” DeMicco said. “We are encouraged to teach to the standards, but I don’t feel that doing this hinders or lessens my ability to be creative and innovative in my lesson plans.”
DeMicco said using the standards as a baseline creates an opportunity for her to use her own creative ideas and individual teaching style to meet a goal and hone a skill that also is being aimed at all across the state and country. ■