For Teachers, Common Core Presents Many Questions, Tough Answers

sequoia_500x279SAN JOSE, Calif. – Beginning this month, students around California will begin taking the official version of the new Common Core assessment. The test will be the first gauge of how well schools are implementing the new and more rigorous standards.

And that has some teachers concerned.

Linh Nguyen is the assistant superintendent of educational services at Cambrian School District in San Jose. He says the district began working on Common Core implementation soon after the standards were first adopted in 2010, providing, among other things, regular workshops for teachers on lesson planning and preparations for the Smarter Balance assessment.

But, he notes, the biggest challenge for teachers remains “a lack of clear direction” for just how to build the standards into their classrooms to ensure students are in fact prepared when they sit for the test.

California students sat for a pilot version of the Smarter Balance last year. This is the first year that the test in English Language Arts and math will be official. Given the increased complexity of the test, many expect a slump in scores this first year. The scores will provide a benchmark, however, for administrators and teachers to measure progress going forward.

“Currently, we are implementing just a small part of the new standards,” explained Tien Trang, who teaches American and World History at Silver Creek High School in San Jose, part of the East Side Union High School District.

Trang has attended a number of Common Core workshops but says training is still only at the general level. Still, he is optimistic that the standards will better prepare students for college and career, and says many of his colleagues feel the same.

“Teachers no longer take the lead in the traditional sense, with them lecturing and students listening,” Trang said. “Now, students play a major role in searching for the answers … students are more independent in the learning process.”

A Vietnamese American, Trang says for Vietnamese students who don’t speak fluent English language will pose a challenge for them when it comes time to sit for the test.

“I always encourage kids to build on their English vocabulary, and to work at deep reading and research,” he explained. “I’ve also added more topics and projects to prepare them for the assessment.”

Van Le is the president of the board of trustees for East Side High School District. He says the district has offered ongoing teacher training sessions, but acknowledges teachers are concerned about how to best prepare their students.

Unlike the previous California Standardized Test, which was a multiple choice test taken on paper, the Smarter Balance is computer based and requires students to explain their answers. It was also clear in questions on the earlier test what skills individual questions were assessing. It will be less obvious with questions on the Smarter Balance whether students are being tested for critical reasoning skills, for example, or analysis.

Teachers say that makes it more difficult for them to help their students prepare.

“For students not used to thinking critically, I continue asking questions to make them give out the answers,” said one high school math teacher at a recent teacher training session held for teachers in the Sequoia Union High School District.

Others at the training agreed, saying older students, in particular, face obstacles because they are not used to this style of learning. Another teacher commented that with the upcoming assessment, it is important that students develop their academic “stamina” to be able to complete the entirety of the hours-long exam.

Questions also revolved around the technology involved with the computer-based test: How would students make references to previous questions? How do they make a chart? What happens if they want to change their answers? How will the test be graded?

Indeed, while educators are on the whole supportive of the standards, many remain concerned about the process of implementation, worrying that it is being done in haste, overwhelming teachers and students. Some have suggested taking a staggered approach by implementing the standards in the lower grades first and working up from there.

In the meantime, Linh says he urges his teachers to be patient. “Shifting the way teachers teach and students learn takes time.”

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