For the first time in 15 years, California students did not take STAR tests in May.
The old state test, known for its requirement to “fill in the bubble” with a #2 pencil, has been replaced with questions designed to measure students’ mastery of the new Common Core standards and curriculum. The tests, taken on computers or iPads, ask students not only to provide answers, but also to explain the methods they used to find them.
This year, California joined the other 45 states that initially implemented the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which integrates more analysis into traditional teaching methods. The transition to Common Core is part of a national movement that aims to have every state use the same educational standards.
“The [new] standards define what we would want the student to know and be able to do when they are graduating from high school,” says Caroline Piangerelli, coordinator of Common Core state standards in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
While supporters of Common Core say it prepares students for college and the workforce, some educators are voicing opposition, and at least 12 states have already introduced legislation to repeal the standards. Three states, Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina, have already repealed Common Core.
While some states are using standardized tests for the first time; others, such as California, have required statewide testing for years, but have switched to the new test.
Stephanie Vega, a junior at Felicitas and Gonzalo Méndez High School for College and Career Preparation, admits she was nervous before taking the test last spring. But she says she actually liked it better than the standardized tests she’d taken in the past.
“With the California Standards Test [STAR], you had possible test answers, so you were able to guess. But with the Common Core test, you had to use your own knowledge,” says Vega.
The implementation of the Common Core curriculum officially began in August 2010. Since then, the district has been changing instructional methods and transitioning to more hands-on activities. Teachers are attending meetings and trainings to learn how to apply Common Core in the classroom.
Natividad Rozsa is the Common Core director for the LAUSD Educational Service Center that includes Boyle Heights. She says changes in the curriculum are key to students’ success. “If teachers are not giving projects and just asking for one-word answers, you’re setting the kids up for failure,” says Rozsa.
Common Core has received some negative reaction from teachers. Jason Yan, who teaches math and statistics at Theodore Roosevelt High School, says when he first learned about Common Core, he didn’t understand why the school district was changing standards.
The new curriculum “forces teachers to plan more, to develop new lessons and activities, collaborate with one another and really dig deeper,” he says.
Yan says he is trying to be optimistic, but that it’s going to take some time for everyone to be ready. In the classroom, Yan says, “I’m making them do a lot of written explanation to really make sure the kids not only know how to do it, but to know what they’re doing.”
The response from some students who took the Common Core exam this year was mixed. While some students felt positive about the exam, others felt they weren’t really prepared.
“Common Core testing did catch us by surprise, and we weren’t ready for it, but it wasn’t as bad as it was expected to be, ” says Robin Joseph Jr., a student at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School. He says the test taking was rather unorganized- students were placed in different computer labs, and there were problems with some of the technology.
In some states, such as New York, that implemented Common Core before California, criticism is stronger. Mark Naison is a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University and co-founder of the BadAss Teachers Association, which works against the implementation of Common Core. His biggest concern, he says, is the adoption nationally of Common Core “without testing, without any debate, and without any discussion.”
New York has given Common Core exams to students for two years, without positive results, he claims. In New York, almost 70 percent of public school students failed the Common Core exam in 2013.
Naison is concerned that the Common Core standards take away teachers’ freedom in the classroom. He says, “Common core is a one size fits all concept, and kids are not like that. ”
He expects that Common Core will have some of the same limitations as other standardized tests. “Standardized tests are incredibly bound by race and class, he says, “and they are not a very good predictor of college performance.”
Unlike New York schools, Los Angeles public schools have a history of standardized testing.
Common Core leaves it to the discretion of teachers to choose the best way to teach to achieve uniform standards. “Teaching to the test is not a wrong thing if it is the right test, and you’re assessing the right things, ” says Piangerelli.
Students in grades 3 through 8 will be required to take the Common Core test annually, and high school students will take it during their junior year.
Whether the Common Core test is implemented successfully in California will not be be immediately Piangerelli says. But she expects “there will definitely be a lot of growing pains.”