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  • Common Core brings big changes

    Common Core forces big adjustments, but it aims to make students college- and career-ready
  • Algebra 1 with South Medford High School teacher Stacey Stover just got a lot harder.
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  • Algebra 1 with South Medford High School teacher Stacey Stover just got a lot harder.
    It used to be enough for Stover's students to understand linear relationships, but now, under new, more rigorous academic standards, students must also be able to solve "real-world" problems involving quadratic and exponential relationships.
    For the past two to three years, Stover, along with teachers statewide, have worked diligently to modify lesson plans and teaching materials to meet the new Common Core State Standards, which Oregon adopted in 2010.
    Forty-four other states and the District of Columbia also have adopted the new set of math and language arts standards that define what students should know at every grade level so they graduate college- and career-ready.
    Under these new learning targets, Stover is tasked with teaching kids more than mathematical concepts.
    "Common Core wants us to build critical thinkers who can solve complex, real-world problems that use more than one strand of mathematics," she said. "Students will need to be thinking in multiple strands simultaneously. Which I completely agree with, but it's easier said than done."
    The new standards are the result of an educator- and not government-driven initiative, said Crystal Greene, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Education.
    "This is the first time we have had shared learning expectations with other states," she said.
    Each district in Oregon has been allowed to implement Common Core at its own pace. The Medford School District began immediately, said Todd Bloomquist, who oversaw the enterprise.
    "When you change standards, you also have to have materials that match those standards, and that takes time," he said.
    About 60 percent of the district's current curriculum aligns with the new content standards, but staff had to come up with supplemental materials to cover the rest, he said.
    "Because curriculum is so expensive, we decided not to purchase new curriculum at this time but modify what we have and supplement it with other materials," said Debbie Connolly, supervisor of curriculum and assessment.
    The district purchased supplemental units for math classes, and teachers developed new material for language arts classes and are utilizing online intervention programs for at-risk students, Connolly said.
    According to the Common Core website, the new English language arts standards will require that students read more complex texts, including more "content-rich nonfiction," and be able to form "careful analyses" and "well-defended claims" based on evidence from the texts.
    In math, teachers will need to focus more on fewer topics and see that their students not only understand the concepts but also correctly apply that mathematical knowledge to a variety of situations and more complex procedures.
    The standards don't stop at math and English but carry over into multiple other content areas, Bloomquist said.
    Next spring, a Smarter Balanced Assessment test will replace the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which doesn't cover the new standards.
    OAKS is a multiple-choice test that covers two or three subjects, depending on the grade, and takes between two and three hours to complete, Connolly explained.
    The Smarter Balanced Assessment will include about three and a half hours of language arts and three and a half hours of math and may be broken up over several class periods. In addition to answering multiple-choice questions, students will be asked to construct textual or numerical responses to some questions based on the provided information and complete "performance tasks," multistep problems that draw from a variety of skills.
    "It's not just, did you know the answer was 'B,' but how do you know that?" Greene said.
    The test will be mandatory for students in the third through eighth grades, as well as for high school juniors, and can be taken only once, Connolly said.
    Last year, the company that developed the assessment tested it out on certain grade levels at certain schools. Ruch, Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt and Jacksonville elementary schools were selected to participate in the pilot test and provide feedback.
    "It was kind of traumatic for some of the third-graders who had never had to sit down at a computer for that length of time and do the kind of writing and responding that they had to do," Connolly said.
    After administering the test, Jami Thomas, a sixth-grade teacher at Roosevelt, said she recommended to the company that the test be shorter.
    "The kids can do it, but if you sit an 8-year-old down for three hours, it's not developmentally appropriate, in my opinion," she said.
    Next year, Thomas said she'd like to break the test up into smaller, more digestible chunks. She said her students were disappointed as they neared the end of the test and realized they still had a multiple-paragraph essay to write.
    Results of the pilot test were not made public.
    The Medford School District opted out of administering the Smarter Balanced field test this year, Connolly said. However, 90 districts, including Ashland, Grants Pass, Three Rivers, Butte Falls and Prospect, are participating in the voluntary test and were given the option of taking it in lieu of the OAKS test, Greene said.
    When asked what she thought about the practice questions available at www.smarterbalanced.org, Stover replied, "Oh my goodness. It's really, really challenging.
    "I think we're definitely going to see a significant dip (in students meeting state standards) if the test looks like the practice ones do," she said.
    Greene said state officials also are expecting that fewer students will meet state benchmarks.
    "But that's OK because we'll know better where students are at ... and educators can address the gaps early and get (students) back on track," she said.
    Teachers have about a year left to revamp lesson plans, concentrating on the new learning targets, so students are prepared when the new test rolls out.
    "Teaching is complicated, so when you add something new like a new target, then it takes a lot of energy and time to adjust to that," Bloomquist said. "In some ways it makes you feel like a first-year teacher again."
    Stover said she is modifying her lesson plans in a way that has students looking at concepts from a variety of perspectives.
    "It has meant a lot more work, and it will continue to mean a lot more work," she said. "Pretty much, I go home and I lesson plan and tweak from about 8 to midnight every night."
    A few years ago, she invited a Medford police officer to demonstrate to her class how he is able to figure out a driver's speed using the distance of a skid mark on the road.
    Hector Santiago, a 10th-grade English teacher at South Medford, said he didn't have to completely throw out previous lesson plans but he did have to "zero in" on new goals.
    "I'm busier than I've ever been before," he said. "It's taking some time to get kids up to speed with the new language and expectation as well as ourselves."
    The new reading, writing, speaking/listening and language standards are posted in Santiago's classroom, along with signs reminding students, "Don't just testify, you must justify."
    Santiago said teachers are working together in professional learning communities to improve on their teaching strategies and ensure that the same content is being taught from class to class.
    "It's no longer the luck of the draw," he said. "Kids are getting the same kind of education among common teachers."
    Thomas said she has already seen progress among her students. "In the fall, my students learned division by fractions, and now I'm teaching division by decimals, but my students can already draw a pictorial representation of division by decimals because of what they learned earlier.
    "We're not just asking kids to learn content, like two-plus-two, but we're teaching them actions and strategies to being life-long learners," she added.
    Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or by email at tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.
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