I'm going to come right out and say it: Common Core is working in my district. I understand this is not the perception everywhere – especially here on Long Island. In my district the key factors that played a role in our successful transition were ongoing attendance at training sessions in Albany, along with ownership and adaptation of curriculum aligned with higher standards.
We bought into the standards and then we adjusted them to fit the unique needs of our students. Most importantly, we kept the emphasis on day-to-day instruction and chose not to focus on the annual assessments. I do not doubt the importance of the assessments, as I believe they play a critical role in the educational cycle, but the best way to excel at those tests is to create an environment where critical thinking and problem solving are front and center, and where real learning is prioritized above memorization.
The fact that many observers treat the Common Core standards and the assessments aligned with those standards as one and the same is counterproductive. When these very different issues are combined, the emphasis becomes “The Test” and the power of highly effective instruction is lost in the emotional dialogue. It is vitally important to keep our focus trained on the accessibility of quality instruction, not a summative, annual assessment.
The adoption of higher standards has nothing to do with the existence or frequency of assessments. Raising the standards has helped to positively shift our educational philosophy and approach. The time our students engage in assessments is minimal compared to the amount of time they are engaged in daily learning activities. Additionally, if teacher-designed assessments are aligned to higher standards, our community has an accurate measure of student performance.
Many people have an incorrect perception about how high-quality schools prepare for standardized assessments. We don’t prep. Good schools teach to rigorous, consistent and clear standards not to tests. New York’s tests, while imperfect, emphasize problem solving and critical thinking, which are simply not conducive to rote memorization. Students should be exposed to the format of the assessment but there should never be a time where days of classwork are dedicated to taking “practice exams.”
The higher standards incentivize a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving, thinking and communicating. It allows teachers, even across multiple state lines, to identify where students need to be at the end of each year using a common set of standards.
To achieve these goals, formative assessments become the priority. Using multiple measures from teacher observation to ongoing classroom assessments such as daily activities and exercises, the data ascertained by teachers provides information regarding what support is still needed for individual success. It is for this reason that the New York State Assessment is just another day in school, and not an event that needs to be focused upon or prepared for.
Teachers from all disciplines are now able to have collaborative conversations that share a common language and vision of what a student should achieve in a given school year. One of the great revelations surrounding the higher standards is the concept that literacy should not be the exclusive domain of the English language arts classroom. Knowledge is acquired by building on concepts and ideas which is now being accomplished across the disciplines.
As we transition the administration of the annual assessments from Pearson to Questar it is important to remember that summative assessments are a very small portion of the work we do as educators. Score improvements will come as a natural byproduct of vision, leadership and collaboration. Trying to make that happen any other way is foolhardy, counterproductive and harmful to kids.