Common Core State Standards vs. Arkansas State Standards Take One: Reading

After our history lesson, the real question anyone should be asking is, “So are these standards any good?” This post will compare the standards Arkansas had in place and the Common Core State Standards. I have never had any experience with standards from another state, so I can’t help you there! Also, we won’t be discussing high stakes testing here at all. For the sake of time, I will abbreviate the Arkansas Standards (also called Frameworks) as AS and the Common Core State Standards as CCSS.

                The AS were fairly good compared to other states. During the reign of those standards, we rose to 5th in the nation in education. The standards weren’t the only reason we did, but they played a role. States are ranked based on several factors. We rose to 5th in the nation overall while still ranking in the lower 1/3 on parents who graduated college and have a strong educational background. Pretty awesome. It also means you can tell anyone who bad mouths our education system to…well…you know.

                Those standards gave teachers direction and a very clear expectation. The AS were very specific. For example, students in 3rd grade would be expected to read 110 words per minute with 94% or better accuracy on a 3rd grade reading passage by the end of the year. No guessing what is expected there.  The standards also kept grade levels from “double teaching”. Very specific skills were taught in very specific grade levels. While there were a few flaws, I didn’t think they were lacking much. That was until I saw CCSS.

                CCSS were, at first, overwhelming. Frankly, they still are a little overwhelming, but before long I realized they were overwhelming because they were new. They are also very different. However, as I became familiar with them, I realized they were more than new. They were new and improved.

 In the past, I had often felt as if there was no time to really discuss, analyze, and debate because there was simply too much to cover. I had to leave a topic before spending long on it simply due to the fact that 3 other topics had to be covered, and they had to be covered quick! A major difference between CCSS and AS is the number of specific standards. The CCSS teach deeper, not wider. Now there is time to spend weeks discussing and digging our hands into a topic or idea. Six weeks to read about and discuss an “Essential Question” along with the details surrounding that question? That was music to my ears.

One of the first concepts that made CCSS endearing to me was the increase in the emphasis on non-fiction literature. CCSS expects a 50/50 split between fiction and non-fiction reading in the elementary grades.  AS had focused heavily on fiction literature and comprehension.  As an avid reader who visits book stores on vacation for fun, this didn’t occur to me as problematic. That was somewhat narrow minded of me. The majority of reading that will help someone in life is non-fiction. Further, there are whole groups of children who often don’t enjoy fiction. As much as it makes me cringe, it’s not a crime to prefer non-fiction. In fact, it may be very useful.

So, where would all that non-fiction literature instruction naturally lead? To more subject integration. Life and learning should not exist in separate boxes. This is just good teaching, but it was less possible with AS. The standards were too specific and there were too many to connect them. Attempts were made with varying success. However, integration of topics and subjects is a major emphasis in CCSS.

AS made a good effort at building upon previous grade levels in the area of literacy. However, CCSS took that to a whole new level. The K-5 Literacy CCSS are often an extension of the same standards. That really is how reading development unfolds. Not as separate chunks of skills and concepts, but as a ladder. (I attempted to find comparable AS to complete the chart, but they are no longer available online, and I long ago gave up my paper copy.)

Here is an example:

Kindergarten Standard

With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

 

First Grade Standard

Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

 

Second Grade Standard

Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text

 

Third Grade Standard

Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

 

Fourth Grade Standard

Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

 

Fifth Grade Standard

Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing

inferences from the text

 

Another strength of the CCSS in the area of reading is that the bar was raised in the quality of literature to be read. The authors of the CCSS define very clearly that they expect more complex text to be used than have been in the past. They define text complexity as quantitative (based on a reading level), qualitative (is it worth reading), and matching the reader to the task. This is a new element to standards for teachers. In AS there was no comment as to the quality of text. There was no written expectation that the teacher choose books that are relative to the students. In CCSS this is an individual standard that applies to all grade levels. While that is best practice, it certainly left the door open and didn’t put very much demand on textbook companies.

That isn’t the only way CCSS raised the bar. The CCSS expect teachers and students to use text that are simply at a higher reading level. I have a mixed reaction to this. I have no problem with the teacher reading high level texts to students, and students having the opportunity and encouragement to read them, too. However, there are many students who struggle to read at such a high level. While I am glad that the expectation is high, it remains to be seen how much of that expectation will turn to frustration.

A component that was not prevalent at all in AS, was analyzing, debating, and looking critically at texts. While there were a few AS that expected students to analyze, they were weak and not the resounding goal. CCSS ask students to do more than read. They ask students to do more than read well. They ask students to do more than read well and regurgitate facts. They ask student construct opinions on high quality text that has meaning to the student and the outside world. Is that not what we want informed citizens to be able to do? (Is that not what we want to be able to do!?)

So, it isn’t hard to see where I vote on this topic. CCSS are a better set of standards. As teachers and students move through the transition to these standards, it’s important to realize there will be bumps. The teachers are working to learn the standards and new methods of helping students. That means some days there will be confusion. Test scores will fall (gasp!). However, students will still be getting a better foundation in reading than they ever have.

Here is a link to the CCSS for English Language Arts. Next week, I will post about the other literacy standards: writing, listening & speaking, and language. I will be posting on the other subjects in my next, then moving on to testing, special education, testing and other issues. I haven’t heard any questions, but feel free to send them my way!

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