Set up to fail? Implementing Common Core curriculum in Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN ) — A new standard of testing for students in Oregon – of which 65% are expected to fail — will come into full effect next year for students in Kindergarten to grade 12.

Common Core is a set of standards in language arts and math created by several groups outside the school system (funding organizations range from the Gates foundation to Exxon Mobil) and comes hand-in-hand with a new test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

A sample question for fourth grade students from the Smarter Balanced Assessment.
A sample question for fourth grade students from the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

The standards, as well as the assessment, have received profound criticism and concerns from teachers, legislators and parents over pressure it will put on students and their teachers to perform and the resulting impact on school curriculum.

“We’re not assessing their ability to think, the test is assessing knowledge” – Elizabeth Thiel, teacher

In Oregon, the implementation process has been highly criticized by teachers, parents and state officials. Beginning in the 2014/2015 school year, all students K-12 will be evaluated by the Common Core standards and take the Smarter Balanced Assessment, although they are not formally prepared for it.

Still, results help determine a school’s funding eligibility.

Top education officials say the expected mass failure will give students and teachers the wake-up call they need, but educators and parents are worried.

Comedian Louis C.K. recently spoke out against the Common Core standards on Twitter. His tweet was reTweeted more than seven thousand times.

The program was launched in 2009 in 48 states, two territories and D.C. to unify learning standards and better prepare students for college and careers with a focus on critical thinking and problem solving skills.

In Oregon, it will cost $13 million per year, compared to $9 million the state spent annually on previous tests. In 2014, Oregon invested $11 million in test-based teacher training.

In the test, students must show how they arrive at answers to short answer, comprehension and technologically assisted questions, replacing typical multiple choice questions of historic standardized testing.

A ‘wake up call’

Bottom line, our standard is too low,” said Oregon Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton.To bring up that standard, he said the inaugural test results will be a wake up call.

Oregon Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Schools Rob Saxton. (KOIN 6)
Oregon Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Schools Rob Saxton. (KOIN 6)

Saxton, who expects only 35% of students to pass, said the process has to start somewhere.

“We need to set the standard to be college and career ready, if too few pass we need to do better on the education front.”

“It doesn’t mean they got dumber or they know less, it just means we’re expecting them to meet a much higher standard than they have in the past,” he said.

By comparison, 75% of students met or exceeded standards on the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge (OAKS) test. But, Saxton said the standards on that test were too low.

Saxton said he expects students will rise to the standard.

 Concerns over preparation 

“Just because you have a guitar doesn’t mean you can play it,” said teacher Bryan Chu. “They’re saying now you have a guitar, make music.”

Teachers said they have not had enough time or adequate resources to incorporate the new material into their curriculum.

According to data from sample assessments, some students may take up to seven hours to complete the test.

Furthermore, an essay might take a third grade student 70 minutes, after that student completes reading and interactive segments of the test.

Teacher Emily Crum said the higher standards may not be accurately gauged to students’ abilities, specifically young students’ motor skills as a result of technology-enhanced test components.

Students type answers on a computer and use a mouse for some parts of the test. Her students can use iPads and touch screens, but most of them can’t use a mouse, she said.

It took some of her students hours, even days, to type a poem they had written about themselves.

“By third grade it’s not there. You are set up to fail.”

Viability: too early to tell  

Field test results for the Smarter Balanced Test have not been released.

Melissa Goff, Executive Director of Teaching & Learning at Portland Public Schools is concerned by the implementation of the Common Core curriculum.
Melissa Goff, Executive Director of Teaching & Learning at Portland Public Schools is concerned by the implementation of the Common Core curriculum.

Head of Portland Public Schools Teaching and Learning Melissa Goff said the reliability and validity of the tests won’t be known until December of the year students begin taking the assessment because the data simply isn’t there.

“It’s very worrisome,” she said.

“I’m not as concerned with students not being able to develop the writing skills, I am concerned about the rapidity with which we’re implementing this assessment,” said Goff.

She said she hopes the state is listening to concerns school districts have about moving forward without sufficient data.

Portland Public Schools Research Director Joe Suggs said those who oppose the tests have not been asked for feedback on how to improve them.

The ‘sacrificial’ cohort

Students in middle school and high school, who have not been taught to the standards, will have the most difficulty meeting expectations.

 

The system integrates kindergarten through to grade 12. In order to not ‘discard’ any years of instruction, it must be implemented at the same time, said Saxton.

School supplies sit on the desk of a Portland Public Schools classroom.
School supplies sit on the desk of a Portland Public Schools classroom.

This means the oldest students will take a test designed for students with a base of knowledge learned through years of Common Core curriculum. But, those students were trained to the lower OAKs test standard.

“They’ll label themselves failures, that they don’t deserve to go to college,” said teacher Hyung Nam. “The test basically works to legitimize inequality.”

Thiel said the test will not be a wake up call. Rather, it will have the opposite, demoralizing effect.

“We’re not assessing their ability to think, the test is assessing knowledge,” she said. “They’re not going to be able to show that ability and knowledge on the smarter balanced assessment.”

 Set up to fail? 

Teachers are concerned a test with low projections for success will hinder students’ development.

Teacher Emily Crum said she worries students are set up to fail the test, and they will lose motivation and stop believing in themselves.

“It’s really demoralizing to kids when they can’t show the skills and knowledge they have, it’s not because they’re not intelligent,” said Thiel.

Opting out

Oregon law permits a parent to opt out of the test in writing for reasons such as disabilities or religious issues. However, based on the state’s report card, schools are marked deficient if not enough students take the test.

A graphic from the Common Core promotional video shows students lost after graduation because their standards were too low.
A graphic from the Common Core promotional video shows students lost after graduation because their standards were too low.

Parents, like father Angel Rodriguez, are concerned the standards don’t foster or give credit to creativity or teamwork.

But, opting out can have negative consequences, regardless of how well participating students perform.

“If you don’t have enough students taking the test it can negatively impact the school,” said Goff.

Help is available for the lowest ranking schools.

Schools that rank in the lowest 5% become what the department of education calls priority schools for receiving additional help. The next 10 lowest percent become focus schools and also receive extra help.

Pressure

Thiel said the Smarter Balanced Assessment forces schools to raise test scores at the cost of other services like art and counselling.

Portland Public Schools teacher Elizabeth Thiel.
Portland Public Schools teacher Elizabeth Thiel.

Furthermore, teachers are put under pressure to get results, and teach to the test.

“The big concern is teaching to the test and the content of the classroom is going to be the content of the assessment,” said Portland Public School Board Director Matt Morton.

 What next?

Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana and Virginia, have not adopted the Common Core standards.

More than ten states have delayed implementation, including Louisiana, Massachusets and Florida.

Oregon has not taken any measures to delay implementation of the test and the first

“We have to start sometime and next spring is the time,” said Saxton.

Students in some states with fully implemented Common Core programs have taken to flashmobs as part of test preparation.

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