By Karen Billing
Starting in the 2014-15 school year, all school districts K-12 will plunge into a whole new way of learning when the Common Core State Standards are implemented. The new educational methodology aims to provide students with the practical real world skills they will need for college and their careers, more coherent and focused standards, more depth in understanding and higher levels of rigor for all learners.
There will be a standards-based report card and the Common Core will come with a new assessment— there will be no more STAR tests.
To help parents wrap their heads around the upcoming changes, Del Mar Hills Academy Principal Carrie Gammel held an informational session on Jan. 10. More sessions are planned in coming months.
“The Common Core is not just content, it’s content and thinking skills and how the students interact with the information,” Gammel said.
Over the years, U.S. students have been shown to lag behind their international counterparts in education and the Common Core seeks to address that gap. Countries such as Finland, South Korea and Japan round out the best school systems in the international community and Common Core reflects a way to match their success with new methodology, Gammel said. Another driving force for Common Core was the workforce field noticing that U.S. students’ creative, collaborative and critical thinking skills are lacking, Gammel reported.
“This is a long time coming,” said Cindy Schaub, the assistant superintendent of the Rancho Santa Fe School District, at the RSF School District’s Jan. 10 meeting. “I can remember the roots of this 20 years ago. Global competitiveness is pushing us.”
The standards were initiated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and aim to create a foundation to work collaboratively across states and districts instead of each state having its own set of standards.
So far, 47 states have signed on and adopted the Common Core. The only states that have not are Alaska, Virginia and Texas.
With Common Core, each state was allowed to add up to 15 percent of additional state standards but they could not take any away. California added 8 percent.
Common Core is highly research-driven and while there are fewer standards, they are clearer and more rigorous, Schaub said.
In reading, the focus shifts from fiction to non-fiction texts, a better reflection of what students will need to read and comprehend in real-world situations. Reading and writing will be grounded in evidence from text to support ideas and thinking.
There is more writing across the curriculum, as students will be asked to explain their thinking and understanding.
Students will be writing more argumentative/opinion pieces, explanatory writings, narratives and research projects. The writing curriculum infuses the use of technology in creation, refinement and collaboration in writing.
The Common Core also has standards in speaking and listening in a range of settings, interpreting and critiquing information and formulating responses in multimodal formats.
Mathematics learning and instruction will be the most significant change as it is more focused on thinking and applying and not just following rules and procedures. The drive is for students to grasp the ideas of concepts instead of just memorizing. Students must show their work and explain how they arrived at certain answers.
Students will be encouraged to “think like a mathematician,” with an emphasis on reasoning.
“Research shows if children are not able to reason, they cannot persevere when they get to the higher level,” Gammel said.
Schaub said Common Core seeks to significantly narrow the scope of content to deepen the level of understanding. There is more focus on fractions, preparation for algebra and whole class math discussions.
There is a focus on rigor and on coherence.
“Common Core really increases the rigor because it’s focused on critical thinking and conceptual understanding,” Gammel said.
Currently, the concepts learned in math are “helter skelter,” they don’t link from one grade to the next; Common Core aims to provide a better link so that students are truly building on the math concepts learned.
It’s also a shift for teachers because they need to be experts in the grade levels above and below, Gammel said.
“I’m excited by the fact that as we all transition to teaching this way, how much more advanced our students are going to get,” Gammel said.
The Del Mar Union School District teachers have gotten a jump on Common Core instruction with their professional development program, Cognitively Guided Instruction, which is aligned with the new standards.
Last year just Del Mar Hills and Ashley Falls teachers went through CGI; starting this year, five more district schools went through CGI training — Del Mar Heights opted not to participate.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is in the process of writing the new assessment test and it will be administered to students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 starting in 2014.
The new assessment test will be Common Core-aligned and very different from what kids see on STAR, no more multiple choice or true and false questions.
Sixty percent of the test will be performance-based tasks and the majority will be performed on computers.
Schaub showed some sample Common Core test questions, comparing them to STAR questions.
With STAR, one reading question asked, “In ‘Casey At the Bat’ Casey strikes out. Describe a time when you failed at something.”
“The student may not have to understand or cite what they read to answer the question,” Schaub said of the STAR example. The Common Core sample question was “What makes Casey’s experiences at bat humorous?”
“The new questions require them to understand the text and go back to it,” Schaub said.
A sixth grade Common Core performance-based question asks students about planning a field trip, giving them a map of the distances to possible destinations, such as a museum, zoo or aquarium, results of a class vote and cost comparisons. The student must then argue for the best choice field trip based on the information and measuring against different criteria.
Sample math questions ask students to explain how they arrive at an answer instead of just filling in a multiple-choice bubble.
“The thing I love is that the student really gets to show their knowledge,” Gammel said.
One Del Mar Hills parent wondered how the tests would be able to be graded subjectively, especially if it’s possible to get to the right answer several different ways. Gammel said there would be a rubric that the test graders use to award points.
The test results are also expected to come back in two weeks time. She said it’s possible performance-based tests could be shorter than the traditional test with long series of multiple choice questions.
The skepticism over the subjectivity of grading is one of the common arguments of naysayers of the Common Core, according to Schaub. Other arguments against Common Core are those who find the expectations too high and those who believe that the country does not have the teaching capacity.
Learn more about Common Core by visiting the National PTA website at pta.org or the California Department of Education website at
View sample test questions released by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium at