Common Core: Vermont schools brace for new tests, standards

Montpelier High School Principal Adam Bunting prepares for the start of the new year. Photo by Katie Jickling/VTDigger

Montpelier High School Principal Adam Bunting prepares for the start of the new year. Photo by Katie Jickling/VTDigger

Nine binders sit piled in a crate in the back of elementary school teacher Sarah Schoolcraft’s car. The binders are filled with Schoolcraft’s math curriculum materials she will be using in her third- and fourth-grade classroom in Williston this fall. She carts the papers around with her, she said, pulling them out and reading through them “whenever I have a spare moment.”

Schoolcraft is one of thousands of educators across Vermont who are gearing up to launch the new national Common Core math and language arts standards for students in grades K through 12. The program, which includes a new testing system, will be instituted this school year.

Though the federal standards mark a course into uncharted waters, Vermont Agency of Education officials extol the benefits: The results will emphasize rote memorization less and encourage more critical thinking and classroom discussion.

In Vermont, Schoolcraft’s hurried preparation is the norm. Because the Common Core standards must be implemented this school year, the state has adopted a “ready or not” approach. That’s left some schools and teachers scrambling to comply.

In the weeks before the inauguration of the first set of national education standards, reception in Vermont ranges from fervently enthusiastic to cautiously optimistic to skeptical.

Schoolcraft takes the middle ground.

“The overall goals of the standards are really relevant in terms of what students need to be college and career ready,” she said.

Schoolcraft likes the standards, though she says the rollout will take time. “It’s a huge shift for teachers,” she said. “I want to be positive but I also want to be realistic.”

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This year the Common Core replaces the current Vermont standards, which AOE officials said are antiquated and vary widely in different schools across the state.

Pat Fitzsimmons, Common Core implementation coordinator for the AOE, says she is confident that the new standards will improve education outcomes in Vermont.

“Talking to teachers, reading them, reading the research behind them, I’m confident that these are the best standards available to our students,” Fitzsimmons said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to happen in the next couple years and it’s important for us all to remain cognizant of that.”

Pat Fitzsimmons. AOE photo

Pat Fitzsimmons. AOE photo

This summer the agency followed up with school administrators, held conferences and programs for parents and communities. Meanwhile, schools and teachers have held optional training workshops.

AOE has done its best to prepare and equip schools, but, educators, administrators and state officials agree, time is short.

Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the Agency of Education, said she has confidence teachers will “give it their best shot.”

“I just know that the genuine change, as opposed to window dressing, takes a few years,” Holcombe said. “And I want to encourage genuine change.”

The standards were created in 2008 through a collaborative initiative between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. A national committee, composed largely of members of The College Board and representatives from Achieve Inc., was formed to write the standards.

The Common Core standards were designed to foster a more dynamic educational system that gives students the tools to excel in a new global, tech-driven economy, according to a brief prepared by the council. The authors of the standards aspire to set consistent educational expectations nationwide.

Forty-three states — of 46 originally — have adopted the Common Core. Three recently abandoned the standards. Nationally, a recent NPR story described the rollout as a “disorganized implementation … that varies wildly depending on the classroom you’re in.”

Come spring students in all of those states will be taking one of the two standardized tests: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

The standards were passed on to the state boards of education to review.

The Vermont State Board of Education adopted the Common Core and the SBAC in 2010. Expenses associated with the standards are paid for out of the AOE’s budget or covered by schools, Fitzsimmons said.

A more progressive approach

Molly McClaskey, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, said the new standards are more progressive, and with time, will bring welcome changes to Vermont classrooms.

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A teacher lecturing at the front of the room every day, for example, has no place in the new standards, she said. In a lively Common Core classroom there is plenty of student interaction.

Molly McClaskey. CSSO image

Molly McClaskey. CSSO image

“You’ll see student discourse, questioning, you’ll see students referring back to the text,” McClaskey said. “You’re really growing the capacity of the student to argue academically and respectfully and use evidence to back up the claims. In math class, you’d see something very similar.”

The Common Core English Language Arts standards emphasize close reading and the use of nonfiction texts, which make up 70 percent of reading materials across all subject areas by the time a student reaches high school. The language arts standards are focused on analysis, comprehension and increased use of academic vocabulary.

In math, the subject material will be “pushed down” a couple of grades, so that what was learned in sixth grade might now be covered in fourth or fifth, McClaskey said. The Common Core covers fewer math topics than the current Vermont standards, but addresses them in greater depth and with an increased focus on problem-solving and student understanding.

Common Core standards do not come with mandated curricula, AOE officials stress. Schools will determine what textbooks and other materials will be used to meet the standards.

The standards do, however, specify certain measurable skills students must learn.

A first grade math student, for example, should understand shapes, place values, counting and be able to tell time and add numbers up to 20, under the new standards.

The English Language Arts standards suggest that 9th and 10th graders might read Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine, or “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.

When Holcombe speaks to school and community groups on the Common Core, she starts off with a question: What is Polya’s Principle? Almost invariably, she said, no one in the audience has heard of the four-step method for problem-solving, which is an approach to mathematics 10th-graders are expected to recognize as part of the new standards.

“Many adults who consider themselves successful have never heard of it,” Holcombe said. “Do I think that every kid needs to know everything in the Common Core to be a successful adult? Of course not. We see it as an aspirational document — our current best iteration of what kids need to be able to succeed, in college or career, whatever path they want to take.”

Results from the Common Core standards, Holcombe said, shouldn’t be expected immediately.

Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe at a press conference in September 2013. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe at a news conference in September 2013. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

“If we want students to engage with aspirational standards in eighth grade, they need to come in contact with those standards every year starting in kindergarten,” she said. “This is hard work, it’s challenging, and teachers are all doing it differently. But we hope that parents will see the difference in the work students bring home.”

An uneven rollout

In a conference room at Montpelier High School in June, nine teachers sat around a table crammed with eight laptops. They were designing the high school’s Learning Expectations, their own set of cross-curricular standards. The teachers held up a sheet of paper with the seven different colored goals or standards, which include citizenship, communication and habits of learning.

These standards, which will be introduced in every classroom this fall, have been “cross-referenced” with the Common Core, said Michael Martin, Montpelier’s director of curriculum and technology. But, the group emphasized, these standards are also personalized to the school, and to the needs of their students.

“We see the Common Core as a curricular tool, but not like our goal in life,” Martin said.

Keeping the standards in perspective is key to successful implementation, according to Adam Bunting, the principal of Montpelier High School.

Chart shows the learning expectations at Montpelier High School. Photo by Katie Jickling/VTDigger

Chart shows the learning expectations at Montpelier High School. Photo by Katie Jickling/VTDigger

“A lot of schools are going all hands on deck preparing for the SBAC, saying ‘let’s treat these standards with reverence and hold them sacred,’” Bunting said. “We’re taking an approach where we’re trying to be thoughtful about this.”

Bunting thumbed through a packet of the Common Core standards during an interview. On the whole, he likes the standards.

“Thank goodness they’re asking us to think about transferable skills,” pointing out a few high school English criteria that he said would make students think more critically about texts.

But the standards are not as transformative as proponents like to suggest, Bunting said.

“I’m highly skeptical that the Common Core will fundamentally change education in our country,” he said. “I think we’ve proven that school change that happens top down is less effective than change that happens within schools.”

Bill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center, also objects to the top down federal approach.

Mathis sits on the Vermont Board of Education, but in 2009, he testified to the board against adoption of the standards. Even now, he’s skeptical that the standards will be implemented as well as state officials expect.

Vermont schools have ranked high nationally and internationally in 2013 test scores, Mathis said, and the state’s education system is generally successful.

Officials say it is likely that 70 percent of students will not achieve proficiency the first year on the SBAC tests. That prediction, Mathis said, should make Vermonters raise their eyebrows. “These (standards) have never been validated in a real life context,” he added.

Holcombe argues that the testing based on the Common Core standards have merit.

“When you sit down and a high school teacher sits down and gives you a test, how do you know whether that test is valuable?” she asked. “There’s an aspect of subjective opinion, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have some guiding principles.”

Don Tinney is unconvinced by AOE’s arguments. Tinney teaches English and American literature at BFA-St. Albans. He’s taught for 27 years and this year in his classroom, Tinney said, students will use certain vocabulary dictated by the Common Core. They will discuss the “claim” of a paper rather than the “thesis.” But that’s about the extent of the shift he will make in response to the new standards.

“There’s so many different mixed messages we get for all different sorts of parties,” Tinney said. “For English teachers, things are not going to look all that different. Writing’s writing, the study of literature is the study of literature, knowledge is knowledge.”

At BFA-St. Albans, some teachers attended a state-sponsored conference on the Common Core. Tinney was not among them.

“I don’t think people have read through the standards,” he said. “The English department has done a fair bit of looking at it, but in terms of it becoming part of the culture here, we’re not there yet.”

And until he sees concrete benefits, Tinney will continue to approach the standards with skepticism.

“This has been imposed upon us,” he said. “I’m not going to change everything I do to meet these standards that may or may not even be valid. We don’t even know.”

Preparation varies from school to school

While some schools and educators continue to prepare for the rollout of the new standards, the public has heard little about the Common Core.

Fitzsimmons, of AOE, acknowledged that the messaging to the public had not gone as well as the agency had hoped.

“We do workshops, regional meetings, we’ll talk to anyone that invites us,” she said. “But we haven’t reached all the people we’d like to.”

McClaskey of Chittenden South says that lack of communication may have skewed public opinion. “(Common Core) should be as common as the word Kleenex,” she said. “It should have been so in the news — now there’s guesswork and misunderstandings all being promoted at the same time. I would wish this could have been messaged well so that everyone at least had a sense for its worth.”

Fitzsimmons said schools — not the state — need to take the lead in the rollout. Success and readiness largely depend on the investments of individual schools.

Harry Frank, associate director for board development for the Vermont School Boards Association, said there is a “range” of readiness for implementation from school to school.

“Some schools and supervisory unions would say their curriculum development is appropriate for the Common Core and has been for years. There are other schools for whom they will be needing to be making a much bigger investment,” he said.

Superintendent Brent Kay estimated that the Orange Southwest Supervisory Union — which includes Randolph Union, three elementary schools and a technical center — has spent $1 million in the past two and a half years on technology and curriculum to comply with the Common Core.

He said he has grown frustrated with the AOE as the district has struggled to find the time, resources and curriculum needed to prepare students and teachers for the transition.

“There’s no real support that goes down into schools and school systems that give them the support they need to implement this stuff,” he said.

“I’m not trying to be critical, it is a challenge,” Kay said. “Any kind of change of this magnitude is going to take time. And because the assessment’s starting next year, we’re just not going to be ready.”

McClaskey said she knew that every school in her district had to rally their own charge. So, for the past four years, her job has been defined by the Common Core.

In 2010, McClaskey designed and oversaw a four-year plan for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union to adopt the standards. She helped teachers at the five schools in the district develop new curriculum. Nearly every in-service day since 2011 has addressed the Common Core, she said.

“There was a sense of urgency that this is important work,” McClaskey said. “These are not just national standards and ‘you should do this.’ I was doing this because I really believe in it. I believe the shift in the work is good practice.”

But the impact of that good work, McClaskey said, depends on the school.

“It’s a great set of standards with huge potential, but that’s the keyword: Potential,” she said. “It’s a very good platform to encourage achievement and help our schools compete on an international level, but it all comes down to instructional practice.”

Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, clerk of the House Education Committee, said a school’s lack of readiness could be the result of inequities in the state’s education system.

Buxton pointed to the online SBAC tests as an example; some schools don’t have access the Internet. The rural towns she represents — Tunbridge, Royalton and Sharon — don’t have high-speed broadband and consequently students won’t be able to take the tests online and might instead have to resort to pen and paper.

“These are some factors beyond their control,” she said. “I think the administration and the Legislature should be paying more attention to how the schools are resourced, and whether there is an inequity of opportunity for schools to become compliant.”

Educators say the implementation of the Common Core standards is a process: an ongoing, slightly messy collaboration with a lot of simultaneously moving parts.

OSSU Superintendent Kay compared it to laying track for a moving — and rapidly approaching — train.

Schoolcraft has about a month more of track-laying before her third- and fourth-graders come streaming into the classroom on Williston Central School’s first day of school.

“We just got our new order of our new math program delivered,” she said, in an interview in late July. “The expectation is that we are rolling that out when kids are entering the door.”

Schoolcraft will keep reviewing all those binders in the back of her car. She is excited, she said, but then she laughed. “It is a lot of reading.”

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Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.

Email: [email protected]

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