New curriculum standards for Columbia Public Schools meant to align with state

Friday, June 29, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:35 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 29, 2012

COLUMBIA — Columbia Public Schools has joined thousands of other districts across the country in adopting new curriculum standards for math and language arts.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a nationwide program started in 2009 that created new standards meant to prepare students for college and careers. The standards establish basic benchmarks for students according to grade level. 


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Common Core has been developed at the state rather than the federal level, said Sally Beth Lyon, Columbia's chief academic officer. States can change the standards to fit their own needs. Missouri voted to join the initiative in August 2009. Now, 45 states have adopted some version of Common Core. 

Even if this doesn't radically change the curriculum, it still means new assessments of student learning and a slightly different way teachers are going to teach the material.

In the long term, tests being created through the adoption of Common Core will replace the tests used currently in the Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP, for grades three through eight. MAP will remain as the program that administers the assessments.

An End of High School Assessment will be given to 11th-graders. End-of-Course exams currently given with certain high school courses will remain, though there are plans to revise and expand them.

Adoption by the district

The standards are goals for students — things they should know and skills they should have at certain points in their education.

The Columbia district began evaluating the standards last August, Lyon said. Committees of public school teachers and college professors were put together to evaluate the current curricula and review the research that went into the Common Core standards.

The language arts standards will affect grades six through 12, and the math standards will affect grades nine through 12. As Nick Kremer, language arts and social studies coordinator for grades six through 12, told the Columbia School Board on June 11, the district has joined statewide standards, not a statewide curriculum.

The board unanimously approved adopting the standards at that meeting.

That happened for two reasons, Lyon said. For one, it would be most prudent for the district to align with standards accepted by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

"The more important reason is they're really good standards," Lyon said, adding that the district has already had a focus on college and career readiness, which is Common Core's stated goal.

Kremer said that when most students across the country graduate from high school, they often lack the reading and critical thinking skills they will need for either college or the work force. The hope is that the new standards can close that gap.

The plan is to have the Common Core standards for math and language arts applied to all grades by December 2013, Lyon said. 

Common Core standards will eventually be applied to science and social studies, Kremer said.

The new standards have been kept at the secondary level for now for two reasons. One, the elementary school standards changed only within the past few years. Second, the district wants to begin "at the end of the line," Lyon said — it's easier to shape standards for the early grades after the later grades' standards have been solidified.

Application in language arts classrooms

Teams of teachers have already begun to develop model lesson plans and assessments to fit the new standards, Lyon said. 

"I think one shift that's going to be across the board is much more inclusion of nonfiction in our language arts curriculum," Kremer said. More multimedia texts, digital compositions and oral communication will be used, he said.

In grades nine through 11, language arts classes will be thematically aligned with social studies classes. This currently happens only at Rock Bridge High School overall and in Hickman High School's honors program, Kremer said.

Rock Bridge teacher Deborah Tucker was on a team that wrote the language arts tests that will be given to her students.

"The past two to three weeks have been solid test building," Tucker said, whose work has included culling through about 1,000 texts to find appropriate passages, then writing questions for them. "It's the hardest thing I've had to do."

Four language arts tests will be administered, one per quarter.

The first three are the tests that Tucker and her coworkers wrote. Each of these tests will contain four sections: reading, writing, a performance test and a language test, Tucker said.

The performance section tests students' ability to speak, present and debate. Language refers to spelling, grammar and language mechanics.    

The fourth test is the state-administered End-of-Course exam. The first three tests allow teachers to gauge where their students are throughout the year, Tucker said, and to shift attention accordingly.

Tucker said she's heard some doubt at more tests being administered. Some have expressed worry that students might take tests when they haven't learned the material yet.

These tests are entirely in the hands of the teachers, she said. Columbia teachers wrote them, and all tests, except for the performance tests, will be graded by teachers within the district. The teachers train together and use scoring guides to ensure that the same standards are used throughout, Tucker said.

The teachers will also choose when they want to give the assessments within a window of time, based on what they believe their students are ready for. 

Overall, Tucker said, she's received support from her department when she's reported back to them.

Application in math classrooms

The new math standards are being applied to grades nine through 12 and will not be fully implemented until the fall of 2013, mathematics department coordinator Dana Ferguson said. By that time, standards, assessments and resources such as textbooks will be in full use. This year will act more as a transition period, Ferguson said. 

However, math teachers have already aligned the standards with their curricula so they could show the school board how they would use them. The new standards will be applied this school year.

Ferguson didn't think students will see much of a difference in their coursework, since the content standards have not changed. Students, after all, still need to know how to solve for "x" and calculate the area of a circle.

The change, Ferguson said, comes in the form of eight new mathematical practices. These are processes of thinking that students need to be able to do in all grade levels. 

"It might be 'reason abstractly.' Well, that's going to be a kindergarten as well as it's going to be an 11th grade mathematical practice," Ferguson said. "Of course that's going to look different based on the content that's being taught."

Ferguson said the mathematical practices allow students to show that they understand the content. 

"I think that mathematical practices for the teachers will be possibly a little bit of a different focus than they've had in the past," Ferguson said. "So how do I get my students to reason abstractly? How do I get them to communicate their thinking?"

The math department will be giving students course-specific assessments as well, Ferguson said. Teachers will meet next week to begin putting these assessments together. How many assessments will be administered isn't decided at this point and will depend on the individual course.

Expected effects

The shift into the new standards for both math and language arts will be gradual overall. The changes approved at the board meeting will undergo "field testing" in the coming school year, Lyon said.

Tucker echoed what was said at the board meeting: The Common Core standards will vertically align the district. This way, she said, teachers will know more certainly what students have learned in the grade before.

"Any time teachers are on one page is a benefit to the students," Tucker said.

The standards will also work on a national scale, since the standards apply to all of Missouri and the 45 states have now adopted them. Ferguson said that in the future, a student can move within Missouri, or even between states, and find less of a discrepancy in what their new and old schools taught. 

The district began integrating the standards nowso that the system will be ready for new standardized testing beginning in the spring of 2015 for grades three through eight, Lyon said. These tests will be based on Common Core and will replace MAP tests. 

There are also discussions of an 11th grade End of High School exam that could potentially work as an equivalent to the ACT. Colleges might accept these tests as a companion or alternative to the ACT scores, Lyon said. 

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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Ellis Smith June 30, 2012 | 11:05 a.m.

"There are also discussions of an 11th Grade End of High School exam that could potentially work as an equivalent to the ACT..."

Should the nice folks (ACT) in Iowa City, Iowa be job hunting? Probably not, at least in the near term.

(Report Comment)
Fritz Otweiler June 30, 2012 | 4:11 p.m.

Strictly speaking, the Common Core standards have not been "developed at the state level". Rather, Common Core standards are the work product of one of two multi-state consortia that are both working to satisfy new federal requirements. Missouri's Show-Me Standards, which currently inform both the MAP grade-level and MAP end-of-course exams, are an example of standards developed at the state level. The Common Core standards have been developed at the multi-state consortium level; above the level of a single state, but below the level of a national federal prescription.
That the Common Core standards are "really good" may be a slight evasion in describing why Columbia or any district would adopt them. More accurate information might be that when compared to the Missouri Show-Me standards (which presently inform the MAP grade-level and e.o.c. tests), the Common Core standards often expect the same level of profiency of students one grade earlier than the previous/present system. Without adopting the Common Core standards and modifying instruction to insure that students learn them, Columbia and other Missouri districts will increasingly perform below grade level, when defined by new state and federal expectations to which the Common Core consortium is responding.
Districts giving "end of high school" exams at the close of 11th grade might do well to reflect on the purpose of the 12 grade year of instruction.
Additionally, regarding Mr. Smith's comment, even an end-of-h.s. mastery exam, while its diagnostic results might be used for many reasons (as the article accurately suggests), would not "replace the ACT", as the mastery exams measure what students have already learned, while the ACT purportedly measures a student's capacity for college-level learning. The difference explains why many students who do sufficiently on the MAP grade-level or MAP end-of-course exams nonetheless do poorly on the ACT. Success in meeting High School performance standards does not necessarily connote capacity for collegiate success.
It is unreasonable for school district staff to be imprecise in describing federal, state, and local approaches to assessment, while at the same time maintaining that their students and patrons do not understand those systems or their intent, purposes and functions. Let's expect our school administrators to be as precise in their understanding and expression as they expect students to be.
Apart from this imprecision in understanding or expression, kudos to the CPS for taking an anticipatory and assertive approach to adopting common standards that will more accurately demonstrate the learning of CPS students in comparison to those of other schools, other districts, and other states.

(Report Comment)
Fritz Otweiler July 1, 2012 | 5:40 a.m.

It is a telling insight into the former/present approach and expectations of CPS that a teacher's work to align testing with the standards agreed upon by 45 of 50 states is "the hardest work" she's had to do. Additionally, getting students who were not previously expected to do so to think abstractly, and to communicate their ideas, are hardly minor tasks.
What new, additional, and focused Professional Development is the district administration providing its faculty, so that the construction of appropriately leveled and aligned tests is a more usual process for them, and which new instructional techniques are being introduced to the faculty to assist them in moving students from concrete thinking into more abstract realms?
Students do not learn from tests, nor from curriculum, nor from central office administrators. Students learn from teachers, and it may be unreasonable to expect students to learn more or better from teachers who have not been supported with meaningful assistance to make them more effective instructors.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 1, 2012 | 6:34 a.m.

Fritz Otweiler:

I appreciate your comments. I particularly agree with you about 12th grade, which these days seems to be regarded as a mere appendage to the curricula. My view may be colored by having graduated from a high school where few students went on to higher education. Our teachers considered each year of high school equally important. I'm glad they did, athough I have a university education.

What is discussed here is serious business, so I hope you won't be offended if I add some humor, concerning ACT.
There are multiple ways a motorist can enter and leave Iowa City, but driving north on IA 1 you pass by ACT. If you ontinue driving north on IA 1, you come to Anamosa, Iowa. What is Anamosa known for? It's home to a state facility for the criminally insane.

PS: I've worked in New Zealand. There, private and public schools are typically K-13, not K-12. If a graduate has the grades, etc. he/she can enter a New Zealand public or private university and achieve a bachelor's degree in the humanities or business in THREE YEARS. I've compared course content for busness versus USA and the course content is essentially identical, EXCEPT IT BEGINS WITH WHAT WOULD BE THE SOPHOMORE YEAR IN THE UNITED STATES. As a registrar put it, "WE DON'T WASTE OUR TIME AND THEIR MONEY TEACHING THEM WHAT THEY SHOULD HAVE LEARNED IN HIGH SCHOOL."

(Report Comment)

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