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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A Lesson on Common Core State Standards

A Preface

                I set this blog up over a year ago, and I really haven’t had time to post anything. However, as more and more questions about Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are sent my way I think this is an easier way to post my thoughts. Before I even start, I have some ground rules. Any teacher who wants to keep her sanity sets up the rules and expectations before even launching into any lessons.

  1. Be Patient. This is going to take some time. It will take more than one post for me to say all I want to say. Once I post, things will continue to change so there will be more to discuss. The posts will be long. However, if you don’t have time to read this, you certainly don’t have time to have an opinion on the matter.
  2. Accept that this is a complicated issue. There are whole books written on this topic, and I am not claiming to have read them all. I am a player in the game, which is more than most people feeding you information can say. I try to stay informed, but I am fully capable of making mistakes and having misinformation. I know very little about High School, but as I learn I will be making edits.
  3. Outside of the school I am entitled to opinions. In the classroom, teachers are supposed to be careful about their opinions. However, this is not a classroom. I do not feel the pressure I do when I am in front of students to keep my opinions to myself. This is a blog, not a textbook.
  4. I welcome open debate and thought provoking conversation. As a teacher, I take enough verbal abuse from parents, community, and the media. Here, I don’t have to take that. I will call you out and send you packing..
  5. Do your own research, but do so carefully. Education is undergoing major changes on MANY fronts. It is easy to get wrong information or intentionally misleading information. Go ahead and read other people’s opinions, but read the primary source information, too. I will be including links to sites I use.

Part 1: Just What Is Common Core? A Brief Modern History Lesson

                                Simply put, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a set of standards. Nothing is ever really that simple, though. Standards have been a part of education since before I became involved. That has not always been the case. There was a time in teaching when every teacher or school decided what was taught. That had pros and cons. We are not here to debate the need for standards to exist at all, as it would be a frivolous conversation at this point in the game.

Standards came about as a way to address deficits in education. Standards were also needed in order to set up standardized testing. Pressure arose for districts to become accountable. For that to happen, there had to be a list of what they were accountable for teaching. Each state developed standards and testing. In Arkansas, standards and standardized testing have been around a long time, and the Benchmark Exam, in some form, has been around since the late 90’s.

It is crucial at this point for you to understand that standards and standardized testing are not the same thing. The standards are written, usually by a non-profit or state funded group. Then a separate entity, almost always a company that will make money is commissioned to create the test. Standards are the list of goals and expectations. Standardized testing is an assessment process to determine if those goals and expectations have been met. Standards existed before Common Core. High Stakes testing existed before Common Core. Federal involvement existed in education LONG before standards, high stakes testing, and Common Core.

Fast forward through about 20 years of local standards. Fast forward through conversations about the quality of each state’s standards, the validity of the high stakes tests, and much more. Fast forward through increased demands from the Federal Government for all children be proficient in the same way. It’s relevant to where we are now. However, it’s far too much information to cram into this spot.

All of that led to some states coming together to write the Common Core Standards. More specifically The National Governor’s Association decided to create a set of standards. You can read all about that history somewhere else. My point is, they weren’t federally written, but they were initiated through a national organization. That’s an important distinction. Further, they weren’t initiated by educators, but politicians. They were written by educators and professionals in specific fields of study, such as mathematics.

The way Common Core Standards became so prevalent so quickly is Race to the Top money. This was a Federal initiative offered to states. In education, money is something we often have to hunt down. This large sum of money was highly sought after. One of the stipulations for this money was the state had to have adopted “college and career ready standards.” There were a few of these out there for the taking or states could write new standards. Most applicants for Race to the Top money chose Common Core State Standards. In the end, not everyone who adopted Common Core even got Race to the Top money. However, most of those who adopted CCSS in the process of getting Race to the Top money have kept the standards. There were other reasons states chose to opt into CCSS, but this is the most common reason. Arkansas applied for Race to the Top Money and did not receive it.

Once the state of Arkansas decided to adopt CCSS, a plan for implementing had to be put into place. The state chose to implement in phases. K-2 implemented first, then 3-5. I cannot comment as to the implementation for other grades. 9-12 was mandated to implement this school year. It is important to understand that new books and curriculum aren’t out at this phase in the discussion. There are maps and suggestions, but no true curricula.  A later post will discuss this further, but not yet.

This plan was better than a slam everyone at once model. Common Core builds each year. Also, while literacy typically just went deeper, math made major changes in the grade levels where topics are covered. So, even with this progressive implementation, it is a difficult move. This is the case any time there is a change of this scale.

Now, here is where things get really messy. When Common Core standards were issued and adopted and implemented, standardized testing that aligned with the CCSS was not available. This caused a huge problem, and much of my daily frustration with the process. We were to be teaching one set of standards and testing an entirely separate set. This is a HUGE, MASSIVE, ENORMOUS problem. I will also discuss this more in depth in a later post.

In the beginning, the state department planned to hold districts “harmless” for their test scores. At about the same time someone (I honestly cannot tell you if the state department or a testing group), produced crosswalks. These documents claimed quite a large correlation between Arkansas State Standards and Common Core State Standards. However, it didn’t take long before it was apparent that those crosswalks were little more than key word searches. The correlations were weak at best. This made the use of the old Benchmark tests while we were teaching CCSS a problem.

At this point in time, I felt very little stress about the move to new standards without new testing. I felt massive amounts of money would be wasted on the tests, but understood that change comes with difficulties. As long as I wasn’t going to be judged by the wrong test, I felt ok with it.

Then, Federal mandates voided the “harmless” plan. This is a complicated topic, but basically we still had to be accountable to a high stakes test in order to be in compliance. No test is ready for CCSS. The state had to have a plan in place for identifying under performing schools according to test scores. So, all the old Benchmark exam pressures returned, but I wasn’t teaching Benchmarks anymore. I was expected to teach Common Core Standards. Basically it amounts to reading a map of Florida to get around in Utah. It confuses parents, community members and even teachers when we are torn in different directions.

At this point in time, the State of Arkansas is on its last year of Benchmark Exams. We have given Benchmark Exams for 3 years in which Common Core Standards were implemented. Some districts are piloting the new tests, but these scores will not replace their Benchmark scores. The new tests will be in place next year, according to current plans. Officially, all public school teachers in the state of Arkansas are teaching the CCSS.

I have many more posts planned including my take on the quality of the CCSS, the new assessments, special education and CCSS, and more. However, it would be difficult to touch on these topics without some background knowledge. I welcome your questions, but please remember your manners. As a homework lesson between now and my next post, I suggest you go take a look at the Common Core standards.

Common Core Standards – www.corestandards.org

              Arkansas Department of Education FAQ page on CCSS – http://www.arkansased.org/faqs/faq_categories/common-core-state-standards

The National Governor’s Association –  http://www.nga.org/cms/home.html