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Schools dig into Common Core standards

Jennifer Terman
Staff Writer

With the abandonment of the previous assessment tests and standards, area schools are adjusting to the new curriculum and implementation of Common Core State Standards.

The new standards move away from answering questions based on memorization and instead focus on problem-solving and the way students arrive at an answer. Reading and literacy are emphasized across all subjects with a focus on informational texts and prime source documents.

The standards were developed using state departments of education, scholars, professional organizations, teachers and other educators, parents and students.

California joined 45 other states in adopting the new standards in August 2010.

The standards published on the California Department of Education website include explicit mention of the intent to include what students are expected to know and be able to do ­— and not how teachers should teach, leaving a great deal of discretion to teachers and curriculum developers.

“Just as students must learn to read, write, speak, listen and use language effectively in a variety of content areas, so, too, must the standards specify the literacy skills and understanding required for college and career readiness in multiple disciplines,” according to the stated standards, which among other requirements include a 50-50 ratio of nonfiction and fiction reading in grade four, 55-45 in grade eight and 70-30 in grade 12.

Margaret G. Scotten Elementary first-grade teacher Lynn Dell, who taught kindergarten last year, said students have been responsive to the texts and have shown a greater interest in learning.

“A few of the things we noticed with Common Core are the focus on academic vocabulary and use of more informational texts,” Dell said. “We were amazed how well the kindergarten students picked up the academic language to which they were exposed and used the vocabulary appropriately. Now, as a first-grade teacher with the same students, I notice their interest in unfamiliar words.”

Dell cited an example of a nonfiction text used in class about Benjamin Franklin and his inventions, which led students to think about how he changed the world and how they might be inventors, too. She also cited the math computations that focus on how students arrived at an answer, not just the answer itself.

“While the whole shift can sometimes feel a bit daunting as we create new instructional models, new report cards aligned to CCSS and develop the proper assessments, it is also exciting to see that these standards will help students be more active participants in their education,” Dell said.

Concepts of the new curriculum have been distributed, but the textbook materials still need to be adopted by the state.

“Right now we are supplementing our current texts in order to meet the CCSS standards with a goal of purchasing new CCSS-aligned curriculum as they become adopted by the state,” Dell said.

The new standards also emphasize reading and writing for literacy within the field of science, said Alexandra McDowell, science department chair at Nevada Union. She said personnel from Nevada Union, Bear River and Ghidotti Early College high schools met and began to develop common teaching lessons to address the reading standards, which are intended to support English and social studies.

The science standards include the understanding of domain-specific words and phrases and the ability to synthesize complex information and follow detailed descriptions of concepts.

“The student should be able to gain knowledge from challenging texts, making use of extensive diagrams and data,” McDowell said. “The student should be able to write about the reading, drawing documented conclusions.”

Nevada Union Math Department Chair Kevin Baker said the implementation so far has included the transition from simply solving algebraic equations to focusing more on the method of problem-solving. He said that takes a complete shift in thinking, and it will take time for students to adjust.

“It’s teaching them a skill set that takes multiple years to acquire,” Baker said. “We are implementing activities, like using graphing calculators, to do real life applications, like looking at a motion detector. It will record the data, and the student has to try to mirror that with an algebraic function.”

Baker said the new standards are a balancing act between providing the necessary concepts and information to complete a problem and teaching the student how to solve the problem.

“The transitional period is a difficult one because the students we have now coming in look different than a student we will theoretically have in five or six or 10 years from now,” Baker said.

“We have to compromise between making them be great problem-solvers and giving them the algebraic skill set to be successful.”

Baker, like many Nevada County teachers, awaits the new textbook materials and the way the new testing will measure student achievement.

“I’m interested in seeing how the tests are piloted and what the results look like, what the students did and how they respond to answers, and how the score translates,” he said. “It’s all going to be very interesting.”

To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email jterman@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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