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Originally published Sunday, March 16, 2014 at 8:03 PM

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Local students putting big new Common Core exam to the test

Washington schools will be trying out new exams this spring that will measure one of the most sweeping changes to U.S. education in decades — the new Common Core standards for English and math.


Seattle Times education reporter

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Starting next week, more than a third of Washington’s elementary and middle-school students will begin test-driving new high-stakes exams.

Test makers want to see how students respond to the questions and the new online format in a trial run spanning 22 states and at least 3 million students, including children in the Kent, Highline, Bellevue, Lake Washington, Mukilteo and Edmonds districts.

The scores won’t count, though most Washington students will be excused from also taking the usual Measurements of Student Progress (MSP) math and English tests this spring.

Seattle’s elementary and middle schools will not participate because the MSPs are part of the district’s teacher-evaluation system and can’t be set aside, and trying the new exams would have resulted in students getting double-tested, according to district officials.

But the data from the trial run, which includes some high schools, will help developers work out the bugs and adjust the content of the exams when the tests are officially administered for the first time in spring 2015 throughout Washington.

The exams will become the yardstick for one of the most sweeping changes to U.S. education in decades — the new, generally tougher Common Core standards for English and math.

Washington is part of Smarter Balanced, one of two large, multistate groups developing the standardized tests for the Common Core. The Smarter Balanced group had planned to start its field test Tuesday but decided late last week to delay the start until March 25 to make sure its computer software is up to the task, according to an Education Week blog post Friday.

The testing window closes June 6 with a makeup week June 9-13.

The Common Core describes what children should know and be able to do at every grade from kindergarten through high school to stay on track for college or a career.

This spring will be the last year of the MSPs in math and English for grades 3-8. Education officials say those tests measured minimal proficiency at each grade but didn’t target career and college readiness as an explicit goal.

New Common Core English and math tests will be introduced next spring at the high-school level, and they’ll be among several options for fulfilling graduation requirements for a few years.

But starting with the class of 2019, Washington students will have to pass the 11th-grade Common Core exams to graduate from high school.

And the tests could play some role in how teachers and principals are evaluated, beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, depending on how the Legislature resolves that hotly debated issue.

State governors led the charge in 2009 to write a common set of learning goals, spurred by worries that U.S. students aren’t performing well enough on international tests to compete in a global economy.

Washington was among the last of 45 states to adopt the Common Core in 2011 and has spent the past few years making the transition (separate new science standards approved last fall will be phased in over the next four years).

Academics, policy wonks and activists have been arguing over the details for years, but now that the tests are just a year away, the debate has gone prime time.

Tea-party conservatives fear a big government takeover of education, while liberals argue that obsession over standardized tests robs children of instructional time and limits their learning to what’s tested.

Indiana, which adopted the Common Core in 2010, appeared ready to scrap it last week with a bill that only needs the governor’s signature to become law, according to Chalkbeat Indiana, an online, nonprofit news organization covering education.

Supporters — including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which poured millions of dollars into the standards’ development — argue that the Common Core provides higher, more coherent, more consistent expectations that will lead to improved student achievement.

But many students can’t pass the standards now, so teachers will have to change what they’re doing in their classrooms to get the students over an even higher bar, which has never been attempted on such a large scale.

“Just raising the standards will not have any effect,” said Jessica Vavrus, assistant state superintendent for teaching and learning. “It’s a change on many levels and we have more support and more opportunity than we’ve ever had as a single state when it comes to supporting kids to be ready for careers and college.”

Educators generally support the Common Core’s aims, which favor teaching fewer concepts more thoroughly in a logical order instead of rushing through a list of topics often described as a mile wide and an inch deep.

“They see on the one hand the promise of a complete restructuring of education that allows them to really dive deep into subjects with their kids,” said Linda Mullen, communications director for the Washington Education Association.

But she said teachers also worry that more effort has been spent writing the standards and devising the tests than on working with teachers to translate lofty ambitions into practical lessons.

Curriculum changes

Washington’s previous math standards were about as tough as the Common Core learning goals that replaced them, according to a 2011 report to the Legislature by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

But the state’s English standards weren’t as rigorous, so the changes will be more dramatic, especially in high school.

Students will have to study more nonfiction than they’re used to, especially in high school, where it should make up 70 percent of their reading.

English classes still will teach literature, but social studies, science and vocational teachers also are expected to teach students how to read documents common to those disciplines.

Students will have to know “how to read like a historian in social studies, how to read like a scientist in science classes and how to read technical texts in career and technical education,” said Kathleen Vasquez, social studies and literacy program manager for Seattle Public Schools.

The new standards also will require students to make arguments based on what they read, citing evidence from the text to support their claims rather than merely stating an opinion.

In the classroom

The eighth-graders in Amy Abrams’ English class at Northwood Middle School in the Kent district already see the difference this year.

“Before, the teacher just kind of gave us work and we didn’t really know what we were learning or why it was important and why we should learn it,” said Trent DeLucia, 13. “This tells us what you’re learning and really goes deep into it.”

All of Kent’s schools will try out the new exam during the field test.

The exams won’t be timed for the field test, but each is expected to take between two and a half to four hours to complete. The new English exam combines reading and writing, which are now given in separate MSP tests.

Abrams, who has immersed herself in the Common Core for the past three years, is optimistic about the changes.

“It’s the teachers who have to breathe life into the standards,” said Abrams.

Kylie Green, 14, said that in the past, teachers would rush from topic to topic, telling students who didn’t understand something not to worry because they would get a chance to learn it later.

“But this year, if you don’t get it, then we stop and talk about it and go through it,” she said.

She especially appreciated that the class took a few days to analyze Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

She learned a new word, “clergymen,” and focused on what King meant by “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

She could see how it was similar to being told before not to worry when she didn’t get something because she could just learn it later.

“He’s basically saying if you say ‘wait’ too many times, then basically that ’wait’ turns into a no,” Green said.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or jhiggins@seattletimes.com



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