Getting ready for the new common core curriculum

Public education in Hartford and across Connecticut is about to enter a new dimension that will test the resolve of many urban school districts.

Forty-five states, including Connecticut, four U.S. territories and the District of Columbia have embraced Common Core State Standards, which aim to create an across-the-board consistency — by subject and grade — in what all students in the country are expected to learn and how they are expected to learn it.

The standards were developed to respond to the U.S. decline in educational achievement compared with that of other countries, and they are aligned with the college and career-readiness expectations of U.S. employers. The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, who developed the standards, aim to get students across the country to be on the same page with their peers.

Concurrently, Connecticut will be replacing the CMT/CAPT tests in 2014-2015 with what is called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test (SBAC), a web-based examination that asks students at all levels to analyze, solve complex problems, and craft informed, well-reasoned opinions that show they have mastered the goals of Common Core instruction.

Smarter Balanced assessments will go beyond paper-and-pencil multiple-choice questions to include extended response and technology enhanced items, as well as performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

So, as districts prepare teachers and principals to incorporate the new standards, they must also prepare students for a new and more complex generation of assessments. This most important transition is not going to be an easy task. Some educators in the state are already anticipating drops in standardized testing scores during the initial implementation of SBAC, as school staffs and students adjust to the changes.

Hartford Public Schools is taking to the challenge with the same intensity that the district did seven years ago, when it defied convention and introduced a series of progressive education reforms — reaping positive results — that are widely accepted today. They include student-based budgeting, an all-choice system of schools, school governance councils and school autonomy based on performance.

Understanding that we must expose our students to the rigors of SBAC before it arrives, the district and the Board of Education have ushered in the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measured Academic Progress (MAP) assessment, a computer adaptive test that is Common Core aligned and is being administered three times this year to all students in grades 1-12. The district piloted the test with ninth-graders last year and was pleased with the results.

Our adoption of the NWEA’s MAP program is being funded as part of the $5 million that the district received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in December to advance college readiness through deeper collaboration with charter schools.

Hartford’s preparation has included extensive training for teachers and administrators and a technology readiness survey to determine the resources available at each school to administer the test and ensure that all schools are fully equipped when the time comes to administer the SBAC.

The MAP provides detailed action-oriented data about each learner.  Students engage with the computer, as they will on the SBAC. The testing results are used to identify the areas of progress and the areas of need for each student.

After the first test was administered in September 70 percent of principals agreed that MAP data would be very valuable in monitoring student growth from fall to spring.  More than half of the teachers endorsed MAP data as an effective way to place students in courses, identify strengths and areas of need, and determine necessary interventions.

Schools are already beginning to speak the language of Common Core through the MAP assessments. District personnel, principals, and teachers are benefiting from MAP’s comprehensive professional development feature that includes test administration training, test interpretation, differentiation, and laddering instruction. Teachers share MAP reports at parent conferences and explain how students are progressing.

Hartford is not alone among Connecticut districts in recognizing that principals, teachers, students and parents need the weapons to prepare for Common Core.  Sixteen other districts in the state, including Waterbury, New Britain, Bristol, New London and Bloomfield, have all adopted the NWEA MAP assessments in some degree.

Using existing tools, such as integrating sample questions into classroom instruction, sending packets home to study and hosting afterschool review sessions that do not align with the Common Core, will place our students at a distinct disadvantage when the SBAC is implemented.

We are doing our very best to prevent that from happening.

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