a new standard

Here’s what annoyed high school students most about the switch to Common Core

The Common Core standards were supposed to get students to understand math more deeply. For some California high school students, it didn’t work out that way.

“I like working in the old books, because they actually explain it to me,” one said. “Do you want me to learn it? Or do you want me to stare at the problem?”

That’s one response from a survey of students who experienced the shift to the new standards in their math and English classes. The study is quite limited, emerging from interviews from just 54 high-achieving seniors. But it gets at something often overlooked in the political controversy that would eventually surround the standards, which most states adopted in 2010: what it felt like for students to see their classrooms change.

Some of the student’s responses, published last month in a peer-reviewed academic journal, may be surprising. Many blamed the Common Core for encouraging more group work — something they almost universally disliked. In some schools, though, the students appreciated what they perceived as a move away from teacher-led instruction.

In others, students complained that this open-ended approach bred confusion that never transitioned into mastery. And in several schools, it wasn’t clear whether anything changed at all.

Together, the students’ responses offer one glimpse into the experience of those whom Common Core was designed to help — and highlight specific ways in which the goals of the standards proved difficult to realize quickly.

At the same time, author Suneal Kolluri of the University of Southern California writes, “If schools can improve their execution of the higher-order thinking and collaboration skills they are just now beginning to incorporate into their classrooms, the Common Core reform may be a small step in the right direction for improving college readiness.”

Students say they need more guidance

Many of the students, who were interviewed in the middle of the 2015-16 school year, agreed that teachers were pushing them toward “higher-order thinking” thanks to the Common Core, which the state had introduced the year before.

“Students mentioned projects, discussions, group work, deep analysis of complex texts, and other classroom activities that involved complex thinking,” Kolluri reports.

"I feel like math should just be math."

But, students said, teachers didn’t always seem comfortable with what they were asking students to do.

“My Algebra 2 class, we had workbooks called ‘Common Core’ and I’m sorry, I hated it so bad,” said one of the students. “I understand they’re trying to do life scenarios. I feel like math should just be math … Our teacher as well was much more confused [than] us.”

Many also took issue with a new emphasis on working in groups of other students, which they thought came from the Common Core.

“You’re put into a group and you guys are supposed to try to solve a problem that you’ve never been taught before,” said another. “How are you supposed to do that? None of your group members know what they’re doing, and you don’t either.”

Some students said that it was unfair to tie their grades to the performance of others, and others complained that it led to more off-task behavior.

“Most students do not have as big of a passion for math as I do. They tend to not understand math as well as I do,” said another student. “They would understand it better if the teacher would be able to use examples and instruct the student.”

In this case and throughout the survey, it’s not clear whether students were accurately perceiving whether certain changes were a result of the Common Core switch and not, say, a separate push for group instruction.

But it’s clear that the high-achieving students in this study appreciated a more direct teaching approach, something research has linked to higher levels of learning.

What’s Common Core again?

Then there were schools where it wasn’t clear to students if new standards were introduced at all.

At four of the nine schools the students attended, no interviewees noticed any significant changes. When asked about the standards, some students responded with, “What’s that?” or “I’ve never heard of it.”

"The work is taught in a way where we are able to understand it and complete it and not just being able to guess our way through answers."

In other schools, implementation was inconsistent. “One student noticed that his teacher who was also the department head was the only teacher who implemented the standards because, as department head, ‘If you don’t, it’s becoming a bit hypocritical,” Kolluri wrote. At another school, “One student told of a teacher who refused to alter his instructional practices. ‘He says that it’s dumb, he says it’s stupid.’”

There were bright spots, particularly in two schools where students appreciated efforts to make them explain their thinking.

“I know with math, they require you to write out the explanation for your answers and then, I believe in English we had to argue a point,” said one student. “I think it’s more about making sure that people integrate their previous knowledge and also putting it on paper and explaining it in detail.”

“The work is taught in a way where we are able to understand it and complete it and not just being able to guess our way through answers,” said another student.

Diverse texts versus the same old

Another gap between theory and implementation: students’ access to literature by a diverse set of writers.

“The Common Core State Standards Initiative certainly suggests plenty of texts by Latina/o authors, but the students’ comments suggest that few have been incorporated into the curriculum during the transition to the Common Core,” Kolluri wrote.

"Students need to have a classroom where the curriculum is more relatable."

But students largely reported reading high school staples like “The Great Gatsby,” Homer’s “Odyssey,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “1984,” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”

“While the classic literature got mixed reviews, most appreciated the opportunity to access the same material that students from wealthier schools were accessing,” the study says.

Some students could also point to an “enterprising teacher who created meaningful opportunities to engage with issues important to the low-income communities of color in which their schools were situated,” like teaching an ethnic studies class. A recent study found that high school students exposed to an ethnic studies course in San Francisco saw improvements in their attendance and grades as a result.

“If these teachers are teaching in a community that is low income … students need to have a classroom where the curriculum is more relatable to what the students are experiencing,” said one student. “If the teacher excludes that … they feel that their problems are being left out and they’re being left out.”

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: