A trial run for the new standardized test known as the PARCC exam begins in Rhode Island next week. The test is slated to replace the annual NECAP in 2015, as public schools transition to a new set of standards called the Common Core.
A growing group of parents, teachers and others continue to raise questions about test and the Common Core. They are calling on Rhode Island lawmakers to stop the initiative in a movement that mirrors similar anti-Common Core efforts around the country.
In Rhode Island, some of the most vocal criticism has surfaced in Barrington, which might seem like an unlikely place for a rebellion against state education policy.
Barrington is known for pricey, waterfront real estate and some of the best public schools in the state, but parents Tad and Amy Segal fear the Common Core is putting those schools and their two children at risk.
“These kids are coming home stressed, they’re coming home complaining about the worksheets they’re having to do in school. It is a very different experience from when we went to Kindergarten,” said Tad Segal.
Segal first became concerned about the Common Core when his daughter started Kindergarten in the fall. Instead of bringing home the usual, colorful art projects, he noticed her backpack filling up with worksheets with the words "Common Core" at the bottom in big, black letters. His wife, Amy Segal, says a couple of times her daughter has broken down in tears, saying she hates school.
“My biggest complaint also has been just the lack of play in the classroom," said Segal. "They spend a lot of their time working on these common core standards and therefore the things that used to be very important, the play, interactions with other students, they are gone.” said Segal.
Alarmed, the Segals organized a meeting with other parents and soon found they weren’t the only ones with concerns. They started a Facebook page and a website called stopcommoncoreri.org and began circulating a petition calling for the state to remove Rhode Island from the Common Core Standards initiative. There are now Facebook groups against the common core from Tiverton to Burrillville.
“It’s a national experiment what’s going on, these standards were never tried on kids,” said Scott Fuller, a member of the Barrington School Committee and a high school math teacher. Fuller points out that the Common Core has never been tested, and now it is being adopted in more than 40 states across the country.
“Between teachers and kids, we have no idea what the outcomes will be and that’s one of my biggest problems with this,”Fuller said.
The Common Core standards were written through an initiative of the National Governor’s Association, which brought school administrators, teachers, content experts and others together to write the standards. Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist maintains they are meant to provide a guideline for teachers.
“They do not dictate what happens in the classroom in terms of the activities or the lessons, the books or the curriculum," Gist said. "They are a set of expectations, so they describe what we want students to know and be able to do but they don’t say how they should be taught.”
Marilyn Adams, an expert on early reading and a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University helped write the standards for early reading. She says the result is far from perfect, but she does believe it is better than almost any other set of state standards out there.
“And by the time you get to the upper grades, they’re stronger than anything out there, they really are," Adams said. "In terms of literature, in terms of writing, in terms of thoughtfulness that’s expected to permeate the curriculum, they are intellectually stronger.”
Critics of the Common Core say it may be demanding too much of students. A common complaint is that the standards call for students to demonstrate some skills before they are developmentally ready.
But Deborah Lowenberg Ball, a national expert on math education and the dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan disagrees. She spent more than 15 years as an elementary school teacher.
“I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I have repeatedly taught that sort of content to children at this level , and they haven’t been particularly advanced children, they’ve been regular kids,” said Ball.
Ball believes that not only can students learn this material, The Common Core represents a major step forward because it asks students to analyze and discuss math problems in much the same way you would analyze literature.
“If it’s well taught, I think we will see kids subscribing to and being much more interested in mathematics because I think we will be engaging them in much more significant mathematical questions and problems than we have before,” said Ball.
But Barrington Parents Tad and Amy Segal say the new thinking about mathematics sounds better than it is. They have been watching their son, a sixth grader, get confused as his teachers ask him to explain several different ways to solve basic problems. Take long division, for example, Tad Segal says his son used to understand long division, but not anymore.
“He’s now been taught several different ways to do long division including one that uses a whole series of steps that are convoluted and confusing. And what’s happened is that he’s lost out on a clear path to learning long division,” Segal said.
What’s more, the Segals say teachers are rushing students through some material as they try to catch up to the Common Core.
Teachers like math teacher and Barrington School Committee member Scott Fuller are struggling with how to integrate the Common Core into their classrooms. Fuller describes it like driving in a fog because even though he is familiar with the new standards, he has no idea what the new test linked to the standards will actually require students to know.
“At some point we’ll have to teach more specifically to the test because that’s how our kids will be measured, and frankly if this all goes through down the road that’s how teachers will be evaluated in a few years as well," Fuller said.
How teachers and students are evaluated is increasingly linked to test scores, and whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Common Core, Brown Education Professor John Papay says, ultimately, its impact may also depend on testing.
“Those are the standards teachers will spend more time working on and more time teaching. And so in some cases there’s growing evidence that really the test is defining what goes on in the classroom more than the standards policy makers have set,” said Papay.
Good or bad, the standards are already being used in Rhode Island classrooms, and without action from the legislature or the board of education, the test that goes with them is coming. Some 9,000 students in 260 schools around the state will take a practice version of the exam starting Monday.
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