‘Common’ understanding

Newly implemented educational standards prepare students for college and careers

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/27/2014

The way students are learning has shifted this year with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Teachers across the country are trying out project-based learning to ensure students have the critical thinking and relevant life skills that will enable them to be successful in college or a career, as opposed to a set of discrete skills that were previously used to outline student success, according to a Pasadena Unified School District official.
Although the Common Core content standards apply only to English and math, there are also literacy standards for history, science, art and physical education.
California adopted the Common Core standards in August 2010, joining 44 other states. Since then, PUSD has been transitioning out of the use of the 1997 standards to meet the expectations that are set out in these new standards. Helen Hill, coordinator for professional development for PUSD, said the changes are subtle but important.
“We’re kind of lucky in California because the content of our standards for English, language arts and math don’t vary significantly from what we’ve previously been accustomed to,” said Hill. “What does change, though, is the expectations and increasing the rigor because these Common Core standards are matched to college and career-ready anchor standards.”
Meeting these new standards is not tied to state or federal funding, but Hill said PUSD is excited about them regardless, because they believe this is the next level that students should be pushed to achieve.
PUSD’s Web site states, “New tests used with the new standards starting in 2014-2015 will de-emphasize penciling in bubbles on multiple choice tests. Instead, essays and math word problems will assess knowledge, comprehension of academic subjects and problem-solving and writing skills.”
Hill said the district won’t necessarily move away from standardized tests. There will still be common assessments that students will be benchmarked to. Those next generation assessments will be authored in California by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, so there will still be a standardized exam. However, they’ll differ in terms of what students will see.
“Our previous standardized tests were entirely multiple-choice with one correct answer,” said Hill. “What we’re going to see on the next generation assessments is constructed response and performance tests, which are types of questions students have not had a lot of exposure in but they’re the types of questions that permit us to see if students are actually making meaning of their learning and transferring their learning, as opposed to just recitation of acquired information.”
PUSD has been following a 5-year transition plan since the adoption of the Common Core standards in August 2010, so by the time the next generation assessments are administered they will be ready. However, this is the first school year they’ve had a full-scale pilot of Common Core units district-wide, so Hill said it’s still too early to tell precisely what’s making the difference in student learning because there are so many variables at play. She said that teachers and students are still getting accustomed to what the content and expectations are, adding that she believes the standards are achievable.
“This is the first year of the pilot, so we have to give time for teachers to learn as well,” said Hill. “There’s a learning curve for them as well, and we’re doing a lot of professional development this year so that teachers can have content readiness as well as pedagogical readiness. Depending on the level of implementation, be it teacher skills, be it student readiness, what the Common Core standards really allow for is a variety of access points, meaning that there’s a lot of inherent differentiations that can occur with the Common Core standards. 
“Additionally,” she said, “PUSD has chosen project-based learning as a preferred instructional method. Project-based learning really speaks to student voice and choice, therefore being able to meet the needs of multiple learners on multiple levels at the same time,” Hill said. “I believe that what we’re going to see in a few years is that the Common Core standards are highly achievable by many students, especially ones who we’ve historically thought could not.”