2013-09-12 / Front Page

Common Core a game-changer for schools

New standards to replace STAR sooner than expected
By Stephanie Bertholdo

California education officials propose to scrap STAR testing and implement the new Common Core State Standards earlier than expected.

The Standard Testing and Reporting system, known as STAR, has been assessing student achievement in reading, math, science and social studies in California since the late 1990s.

The superintendents of the Las Virgenes and Oak Park unified school districts hope Gov. Jerry Brown’s new education legislation will pass muster with the Sacramento politicians and set the stage to “test the tests” in the spring.

The Common Core curriculum will be the new normal in student assessment and has already been adopted by 45 states.

During the past year, local school districts have been preparing teachers and students for the tests, which are said to emphasize critical thinking skills over the multiple choice and rote memorization questions found in STAR testing.

Students will use computers to take the Common Core tests and there will be times when students will be asked to collaborate with other students on specific questions.

Las Virgenes Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Mary Schillinger said she welcomes an accelerated schedule to put the new plan in place.

“Given the short runway for gearing up to the Common Core State Standards, and the significant shifts in the focus of the new standards, transition needs to begin this year,” Schillinger said.

“This cannot fully occur if there continues to be accountability to the current standards and STAR. Doing away with STAR in math, English/language arts, and social studies gives the green light for implementation of the common core state standards and the associated shifts in instruction,” she said.

Oak Park Unified School District Superintendent Tony Knight agrees.

“I would say that we are generally in favor of this option that is proposed by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and passed by the Assembly Education Committee in AB 484,” Knight said. “It makes more sense to begin making the transition and we should not be asking students to take both the regular STAR test and the ‘test of the test.’”

Gov. Brown and the California Legislature boosted K-12 education budgets by $1.2 billion this year to help with the transition to Common Core. The change in standards will require materials, teacher training and computer upgrades.

But early reports from states that have already tried Common Core tests suggest that students are not faring well. Some parents worry that the poorer test scores could impact college acceptance rates. And parents are concerned for their students because STAR scores were used to determine entry into honors and advanced placement classes.

“Academic achievement as demonstrated by grades as well as teacher recommendation will continue to be indicators of a student’s readiness for honors or AP courses,” Schillinger said.

To accommodate the change, the new legislation would lift the state requirement to produce an Academic Performance Index (API) for the next two years. The API started with STAR testing but a similar system of comparison will be developed for Common Core.

Are teachers prepared?

Schillinger said Las Virgenes teachers have been working hard to match instruction and curriculum with the “more rigorous, problem solving level” of Common Core, which is also being called the Next Generation Assessments, or Smarter Balance.

“In addition, beginning last year, district wide common assessments were developed and administered on line for students from elementary through high school,” she said. “This has given us an opportunity to determine the logistics of using computer based assessments as well as to prepare our students for the computer assessment format and rigor.”

Knight said Oak Park has enough computers to start the Common Core field test.

Oak Park also has been prepping its teachers with “bridge” material and sending them to professional development classes.

“We view the move to the Common Core as a positive education reform that will bring a richer experience for our students that includes more project based learning, critical thinking skill development, and deep content focus,” Knight said.

Torlakson said in a statement, “This represents a challenge—but a manageable one—for California’s education system. . . . We’re using Common Core as the foundation for remodeling our education system, and if we’re changing the way we teach students, we have to change the way we test them, too.

AB 484, the Assembly bill that paves the way for an earlier start date on Common Core testing, cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. Before Common Core officially replaces STAR, full Senate will still need to vote.

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