The Hippo


Apr 20, 2019








Interactive plans and new exams
Districts work to meet Common Core standards and prep for Smarter Balanced exams


If you have kids in the public school system, you’re probably aware of some significant changes unfolding in the classroom. 

This is the first year New Hampshire schools are required to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative, or create their own comparable alternatives. It’s one of 44 states to adopt these standards, which have caused their fair share of controversy.
The standards are meant to align students across the nation with rigorous benchmarks. They shift learning way from memorization-based strategies to focus on interactive problem-solving. The new focus is designed to better prepare students to be internationally competitive upon graduation. 
Critics, however, have stated they are not rigorous enough and waste taxpayer dollars.
But educators agree that the success or failure of the new K-12 standards is in the hands of individual school districts, many of which have been working to revamp their curricula for years. 
“There is a common misconception that [Common Core] is a statement you take lock, stock and barrel,” said Dr. Chris Harper, dean of academic affairs at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, where educators have been developing a new curriculum for the past three years. “The standards in themselves will do nothing. ... You need to look at what the statement says, analyze the verbs, analyze the nouns, and then craft the standards to your school. There’s total local control.”
As the school year progresses, districts will be assessing their strategies and preparing for the Smarter Balanced exams — new computerized and interactive assessment tests aligned with the Common Core that replace the New England Common Assessment Program exams.  
While some have embraced the Smarter Balanced exams, other districts are concerned it’s not the right fit for their students. 
Developing new curricula 
In October 2013, when Manchester Superintendent Dr. Debra Livingston was new to the position, the Manchester School District was concerned the Common Core was not rigorous enough. It opted to create its own set of academic standards, Livingston said. 
This year Manchester is rolling out those personalized standards. They align with the Common Core but don’t follow it precisely. The end result mixes Common Core with Manchester-specific elements.
Kindergarten to grade 5 will mostly follow Common Core standards, Assistant Superintendent David Ryan said. At the middle school level, Manchester administrators determined that there ought to be a greater emphasis on algebra and a reduced focus on geometry because algebra is where kids tend to struggle. 
At the high school level, Manchester has a fairly similar algebra plan but placed a stronger focus on geometry to make up for what is now missing at the middle school level. On the language arts side, the district is clustering a framework based on two-year benchmarks rather than one-year, like the Common Core. 
“We had a math teacher and language arts teacher from every grade and school in our district, and they became experts on the Common Core,” Ryan said. “We developed revisions and an assessment calendar. … We also launched a district learning network, which is a marketplace for all teachers to share what they know.” 
The Nashua School District began revamping its curriculum to align with Common Core and better prepare its students for real-world problem solving three years ago. 
“We were overdue,” said Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad. “The way we taught in the past won’t get us to where we want to be in the skillsets students need when they’re finished high school.”
Nashua started rebuilding curricula for four core subject from the ground up using the new standards for math and literary arts. The district is continuing to assess what instructional shifts are needed in the classroom. 
Activities will be focused on problem-solving and critical thinking. In the past, for example, teachers might have had students read stories about the impact of air pollution on biomes. Now, students construct mini biomes, then research the impact of air pollution and predict what will happen over time. They observe the results and compare them to their predictions, then analyze those results, Conrad said. 
“We are focusing on creating high-quality tasks for students,” Conrad said. “We are trying to create more real-world exercises.”
In Concord, the district is continuing its work to align with Common Core, creating a new writing curriculum that focuses on teaching students narrative, argumentative and informative structures, as well as a new pilot math program. 
“In math we have some new instructional strategies, some new materials, and some of the order of the presentation of material has changed somewhat,” said Donna Palley, assistant superintendent. 
Smarter Balanced exams: plans and concerns 
“I haven’t seen too many educators concerned with [Common Core] standards,” Harper said. “They are concerned with the new test. That’s where most of the criticism is.”
Administrators tend to agree that Smarter Balanced is a challenging exam. Kids don’t just click on an answer; they interact with the questions.. 
“Maybe two or three answers are correct and maybe you have to move something on a graph and put in a point and label things, or do some explanation or write that persuasive essay,” Harper said. 
While Pinkerton is working toward preparing its 11th-graders to take the exam, Manchester administrators are still unsure of their course of action. The district had planned to opt out of Smarter Balanced and use a different set of tests. But that strategy collapsed earlier this month when state Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry sent a letter denying the request. 
“Basically she said that if we do not administer the Smarter Balanced exam it would place those funds in jeopardy, our Title 1 funds, for this school year and impact our compliance for state school minimum standards,” Livingston said. 
The trouble isn’t with the skills being assessed, but with the methods of assessing them, Ryan said. The new test may pose problems for students with special needs who may not adapt well. It could also be more difficult for Manchester’s large population of ESOL students who are not yet proficient in English. 
After a Board of Education meeting Sept. 8, the district sent a letter to Barry inviting her to visit so the district can better understand her point of view. 
The Nashua Board of Education had some initial concerns about Smarter Balanced too. While some questioned privacy capabilities, others doubted the approach of high-stakes testing. The district asked its attorney, the corporate counsel for the city, to render a legal opinion over whether the state DOE could require its students to take the Smarter Balanced exams. 
“And the attorney said yes, they are capable of requiring it, so we went on to prepare for it,” Conrad said.
Six Nashua schools participated in a pilot assessment and identified areas that the schools need to focus on, including difficulties with keyboarding among students who may be low-income and have less access to computers or the Internet.
Regardless of how they prepare, some districts are anticipating what they see as inevitable drops in testing performance. 
“When Smarter Balanced begins I think we’ll see really significant drops because it’s a more stringent set of standards,” Conrad said. “You have to anticipate there will be a drop in results, but not because students know less than they did when they were taking NECAPs.”
Palley said the Concord School District is not concerned. 
“It’s going to take some planning and logistics to make sure all the kids have access to computers for the tests,” she said. “We also want to make sure the kids have a chance to use the technology that they will use for the test … to be able to practice the technology. It’s just different for them. It’s new, but our students use technology quite a bit, so I think they are relatively savvy.”
The Smarter Balanced exams won’t determine much for a few years. 
“It’s going to be a while,” Harper said. “To get the full depth of that, kids will have to get a Common Core education beginning with kindergarten. This is our starting point. … We will have to be willing to wait and work.” 
As seen in the September 25, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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