Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A Teacher's Vision for Common Core

March 20, 2014

When my biology students take the standardized test known as the DC CAS (District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System) in April, 20 percent of the questions will test their knowledge of ecosystems, the environment, and how living things interact.

For years, scientists thought most living things maintain short-term relationships: a lion eats a gazelle; two hawks battle for limited space to build a nest.

More often than not, living things give up higher short-term payoffs to gain long-term, lasting benefits. Rather than make a quick meal out of barberfish, the hammerhead shark swims among them, letting the tiny fish clean parasites from its skin. Humans have similar life-long partnerships. Healthy bacteria living in our bodies help us digest our food.

 Our priority should be to stay the course and find solutions to the obstacles that threaten the success of the new standards. That does not mean that the challenges we face when implementing Common Core are not important. We simply cannot let them steer us off course.

Nature sets an example worth following.  

We need the same long-term vision when we talk about education reform, especially as the District of Columbia and 45 states transition to new tests to assess the Common Core State Standards.

The Short-Term Challenge

Next year, instead of taking DC CAS literacy and math tests, students will take new PARCC assessments aligned with Common Core learning goals. With questions that require students to back up their ideas with evidence, the PARCC assessments will measure students’ ability to reason through complex problems and reading passages – skills that will make our students competitive in a global economy.

Common Core is not the only new set of learning standards that states are adopting. DC and eight states have also adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are designed to bring science education into the 21st century.

Any transition on this scale is bound to be challenging, and this move to new standards and tests is no exception.

Some concerns, such as the claim that students spend too much time on testing, are not substantiated by data. A recent Teach Plus report shows that students spend on average 1.7% of the school year taking state and district mandated tests, a relatively insignificant amount of time.

Other concerns about the transition to new tests are more complicated. One challenge in DC is that we do not have an NGSS-aligned test to measure the progress students make in science. My students still have to take the outdated biology DC CAS, which means both their and my success depend on their knowledge of old science standards I am no longer teaching. Getting rid of the test altogether would create another set of problems, such as making it difficult to identify schools, teachers, and students who need extra supports as well as those who can be a source of support and leadership.

This situation is far from ideal, but before we rush to find solutions to these short-term problems, we should consider the long-term goals we have for our students.

The Long-Term Priorities

I would rather have all students enter my 10th grade biology class able to read and write with complexity than worry about the few hours they will spend each year taking a science test that is misaligned. Last year, only half of my 10th graders were able to pass the state reading test.  

Common Core-aligned assessments like PARCC have the power to change that. The educators and civic leaders who wrote the standards the new assessments are based on made sure to include literacy standards for science, math, and history courses instead of holding only English teachers responsible for having students read and write in class.

Students in DC are already starting to benefit from the meaningful changes Common Core has catalyzed. If we continue on this path, we will get to a place where students can count on all of their teachers to know how to help them develop a strong foundation in reading and writing.

Take a Cue from Nature: Stay the Course

The next time you read a convincing argument that proposes to pull the plug on Common Core because of the “damage” being done to students, take a cue from nature.

Our priority should be to stay the course and find solutions to the obstacles that threaten the success of the new standards. That does not mean that the challenges we face when implementing Common Core are not important. We simply cannot let them steer us off course or undermine the opportunity we have for Common Core assessments to dramatically change outcomes for students.

The long-term gains for students far outweigh the short term discomfort we will have to bear.
 
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