Goodbye, No. 2 Pencils

Goodbye, No. 2 Pencils

Common Core begins in earnest, but are East Bay schools ready?

Common Core made some enemies in high places recently. Louis CK went on a Twitter rant in the spring, calling the set of standards a “massive stressball” hanging over his children’s school. Stephen Colbert says new Common Core-aligned tests prepare kids for what they’ll face as adults: “pointless stress and confusion.”

You may have heard about some of the big differences between Common Core and the old California state standards: Common Core is more rigorous, it requires more writing (even in math and science), and kids have to explain how they arrived at their math answers. They’re also national standards, intended to provide apples-to-apples comparisons across states about how American kids are doing. While most educators applaud the idea of raising the bar, critics say that the standards create a common “dumbed-down” standard.

It’s really too early to judge. Five years in the making, Common Core has only just been rolled out in classrooms this year, and it’ll be years before anybody knows whether kids are better prepared for college and work as a result. The most tangible change so far is how kids are tested under the new standards. Common Core spells out what each student should know in math and language arts, but provides no details about how or what teachers should teach. That’s still up to state and local school boards.

But all 44 states that signed on to use Common Core have to use similar tests, and those assessments are new in a few major ways: They’re entirely online (no more No. 2 pencils), there are no multiple-choice questions, they include short essays, and all math work has to be shown.

In other words, kids have to type and show their thinking. And those school district servers had better be robust.

So how are cash-strapped school districts handling the challenge?

The short answer: So far, so good. Longer but just as true: There’s a lot of uphill to climb to get kids ready for Common Core.

Oh, and Louis CK is right. The tests are hard.

— — —

The Oakland Unified School District, like other districts across the country, was nervous about both the content of the test questions and the technological requirements of administering the test. From a six-week window, administrators chose 15 days for testing, with four testing sessions for each students plus keyboard training. The assessment team took the sample test themselves once it was available in May 2013.

“We all have master’s degrees on our team, and we had a serious emotional reaction to the test questions,” says Ramona Burton, director of state and local assessment for OUSD. “We knew that if kids took it and adults weren’t prepared, they would freak the kids out.”

After all teachers and principals took the test, their resounding response was that students need lots of keyboarding practice and exposure to the new types of multi-step test questions they will encounter.

It makes sense. The whole point of Common Core, when it was proposed by the National Governor’s Association, was to move American schoolchildren toward greater independent thinking, inquiry, and problem-solving. The mantra for both math and language arts standards is “fewer, higher, deeper.” All American children will be held to a higher standard of critical thinking and skills.

“Our job is to align our instruction with Common Core, to be more conceptual. That work is ongoing,” says Tom Hughes, principal of Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland’s Dimond District. “We’ve made some progress, and there’s more to do, but the reality is that students are going to experience the test as harder and harder over the coming years. We’ve tried to raise awareness, that this change is bigger than Bret Harte; it’s bigger than Oakland and California.”

— — —

The test that Bret Harte students took in May helped measure the scope of the challenge, but it wasn’t quite like the tests kids will take next year, when scores actually count.

Next spring the tests (called Smarter Balanced assessments) will be adaptive. Based on a student’s answers, the test adjusts the difficulty of the next question. Tests are more or less tailored to each student’s ability. A correct answer means the next question will be harder. An incorrect answer, and the next question will be easier.

“It’s a huge shift,” says Burton. “We need to get parents to do the test at home, to experience the test. Once you experience it, how difficult it is, it will be easier when the scores are lower.”

Burton isn’t just talking about the content; she’s also talking about technical chops. For some students and their parents, the skill to drag and drop material on a screen is something new, not to mention how unfamiliar hovering over text to read pop-up windows may be. There are no answer choices on the Smarter Balanced test, just text boxes to fill in, and it isn’t possible to move forward until all questions are answered.

It’s a challenge on the server side, too. During field tests in Kansas, hackers shut down district servers. In Salinas, routers failed, screens froze, and the sound went out.

OUSD managed to avoid these problems. The district had $3.5 million from the state to buy wireless-enabled Chromebooks and wired them so they could only be used to administer the test. Each cart of 34 had its own wireless network.

“We could do everything related to the test centrally,” Burton says. “We have schools with fantastic technology and others that don’t. It wouldn’t have been equitable any other way.”

During the field test in May, when 19,000 students logged on in groups to the Smarter Balanced website, Burton and her team crossed their fingers. When one network server went down, they kicked in to troubleshoot mode. Someone had turned on the air conditioning, causing an electrical outage. That turned out to be the biggest glitch. A command center of technical and assessment support staff at district offices fielded questions from schools every morning during tests. By the end of the testing window, the whole team heaved a huge sigh of relief.

“There was collaboration where it hadn’t been before,” says Tracey Logan, a project manager in technology at Oakland Unified. “That’s not traditionally how we have done business.”

Public schools all around the Bay Area (and most of the country) went through the same exercise in the spring, testing out new online assessments. About 5,800 students in Berkeley took the test on Chromebooks with minor technical glitches mostly on the Smarter Balanced vendor side.

“I’ve been in several meetings of tech directors around the Bay Area subsequent to the tests,” says Jay Nitschke, director of technolgy for Berkeley Unified, “and the feeling was that the tests went better than most expected.”

Remember, this was just a test of the test. Schools have not received scores for their students. That said, Nitschke adds, there is certainly a need to make sure that all students are fluent with technology, and teachers who had been reticent to use Chromebooks or other computers as a part of classroom instruction may be more open to the idea this year as a result of seeing their students take the test.

In Alameda, about 4,600 students took the test on Chromebooks. On one of the testing days, a school site lost its connection to the Internet.

“The district’s technology staff will be replacing that link so that the school will have 100 percent connectivity during the next round of testing,” says Susan Davis, community affairs manager for Alameda Unified School District.

Many kids reported later that they liked the online test better than old-fashioned pencil and paper tests, Davis says.

But based on student feedback and teacher observations, the district plans to broaden its math focus, work with students on reading complex texts, and have teachers work together to calibrate scoring of essays.

The field test scores might not count for students, but administrators spent the summer combing through data. Oakland district tests have been redesigned to line up with the Smarter Balanced model. Teachers looked for more ways to adjust their instruction to the right level of rigor.

“One of the things that my math teachers have discussed is the need to make sure our students are able to attack multi-layered math problems,” says Cameron Stephenson, co-principal of Greenleaf Elementary in East Oakland. “They need to be able to use their background knowledge from several different units (and possibly grade levels) to solve problems that they have possibly never seen before.”

A former Monthly co-editor, Kate Rix is a freelance writer based in Oakland.

How they stack up

Here’s a question from the old California state test for sixth grade:

A group of hikers climbed from Salt Flats (elevation -55 feet) to Talon Bluff (elevation 620 feet). What is the difference in elevation?
A: 565
B: 575
C: 665
D: 675
Answer: D [620 – (-55) = 620 + 55 = 675]

Here’s a question from the new Common Core-aligned test for sixth grade:

Mr. Ruiz is starting a marching band at his school. He first does research and finds the following data about other local marching bands.

Number of Brass Instrument Players in Band 1: 123
Number of Percussion Instrument Players in Band 1: 41

Number of Brass Instrument Players in Band 2: 42
Number of Percussion Instrument Players in Band 2: 14

Number of Brass Instrument Players in Band 3: 150
Number of Percussion Instrument Players in Band 3: 50

Part A:
Type your answer in the box. Backspace to erase.
Mr. Ruiz realizes that there are _ brass instrument player(s) per percussion player.

Part B:
Mr. Ruiz has 210 students who are interested in joining the marching band. He decides to have 80 percent of the band be made up of percussion and brass instruments. Use the unit rate you found in Part A to determine how many students should play brass instruments. Show or explain all your steps.

Answer: Four points are possible for this question.

Part A: 3 (1 point)

Part B:
Reasoning: explains or shows how to use 80 percent (1 point)
Reasoning: explains or shows how to use 3:1 ratio (1 point)
Computation: provides answer of 126 (1 point)

Faces of the East Bay