Tanya Golden is looking forward to changing how she teaches. “Before, my curriculum was an inch deep and a mile wide with too many things to cover. I had to keep moving even when my students weren’t ready. Now I can teach more for understanding,” says the sixth grade teacher in her tenth year at ABC Unified School District, southeast of Los Angeles.

This change is coming because California adopted Common Core State Standards in 2010. The new federal guidelines in English language arts and mathematics emphasize critical thinking over memorizing facts and aim to make standards consistent throughout the country. Common Core must be implemented in the 2014-15 school year, along with new technology-based tests from the Smarter Balance Assessments Consortium.

Districts and schools are in varying stages of development. Though the state is pouring $1.25 billion into Common Core implementation, it is not dictating how districts spend the money, train teachers, buy materials and technology, or how teachers teach.

Ray Gaer, president of the ABC Federation of Teachers, stresses the need for union involvement. “Teachers should have a large say over the support they get. At ABC, we meet regularly with district administrators. We have control over how Common Core is rolled out. A key group of teachers has been helping to plan the timeline and developing curriculum. If not for union involvement, we’d have been steamrolled.”

At ABC, we meet regularly with district administrators. We have control over how Common Core is rolled out. — Ray Gaer, President, ABC Federation

Teacher leaders at each site are training their colleagues. Golden, a leader at Carver Academy, helps teachers on the English language arts component. Though she’s optimistic about the new curriculum, she worries about how the assessment piece will impact the culture of even her “tech-savvy” school where students are accustomed to using a computer lab for 50 minutes each week.

When third and fourth-graders piloted the tests last year, she says “even top students were overwhelmed. Keyboarding skills are crucial. Questions have more than one answer. There’s click and drag instead of pencil and paper. Students listen to audio clips, and if they need to go back, they have to replay the entire clip. Some were frozen, just staring at the screens. Others just clicked quickly so they could finish.”

The testing will now take two weeks, though Golden’s school may need up to 12 weeks to cycle students through the computer lab. She worries that even when only part of the school is testing, “the entire school is in performance anxiety mode…kids can’t make noise in the halls, or play anywhere near the lab. Testing will throw off PE, library and other programs that rotate around computer scheduling.”

CFT supports the efforts of Common Core to create stronger connections between academic standards, content and assessments, explains Gary Ravani, president of the EC/K-12 Council, “but we must slow down the momentum toward some of these changes.”

One new law will help. On October 2, Gov. Brown signed AB484, a bill that will suspend most existing standardized tests this year so schools can prepare staff and students for the new Common Core testing. (See below)

The Common Core standards are criticized by many people. Early childhood educators stress that the way to get kids to read is through fiction, but the English language arts component has an increased emphasis on non-fiction.

Critics from the political right say the federal standards take power away from individual states. Critics on the left assert that Common Core is a band-aid approach that does nothing to address poverty or close the achievement gap. They also say that its key funder, Bill Gates, will be the principal beneficiary along with Apple because of the required computer-based assessment.

And some critics claim Common Core will result in teaching to a different test and widen the digital divide so that kids who have greater access to computers will achieve greater success.

Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers President Kimberly Claytor reports that at every school board meeting in her Orange County district, a handful of critics talk about the evils of the Common Core curriculum. But Claytor is more concerned that the district is not providing teachers with the materials they need to implement the new standards.

Claytor says Newport-Mesa teachers have become so used to footing the bill that the Schools First Credit Union now offers teachers special loans for classroom supplies. “Teachers need to understand that the employer is supposed to provide the needed resources, not the other way around.”

— By Mindy Pines, CFT Reporter

Union stands behind testing suspension this year

Gov. Brown signed Assembly Bill 484, which suspends most existing standardized tests this year so educators and schools can prepare students for the new Common Core testing.

“We applaud Torlakson and the Legislature for their efforts to protect the best interests of California’s kids and pass AB484,” says Gary Ravani, president of the CFT EC/K-12 Council. The bill was sponsored by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and authored by Assemblymember Susan Bonilla (D-Concord).

The State Board of Education voted unanimously to seek a waiver from the U.S Department of Education to suspend standardized testing while educators prepare for Smarter Balanced Assessment. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tried to block AB484 and threatened to withhold funds from California.

Veteran education observers contend that any penalty will likely be limited to a small portion of the $15 million in Title I money earmarked for administrative functions at the California Department of Education — and won’t deny California money that would directly impact students. — MP

SMARTER Balanced Assessments: What you need to know about the new testing system

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is one of two multi-state consortia funded through a four-year, $175 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop and align an assessment system to the Common Core. (SMARTER stands for Summative Multi-State Assessment Resources for Teachers and Educational Researchers.)

Districts and schools throughout California will switch to this new system in grades 3-8 and grade 11 for English language arts and mathematics testing in the 2014-15 school year. Schools with enough “technical capacity” will administer a trial run this year.

The new assessments are technology-based and computer adaptive. The tests adjust to a student’s ability by basing question difficulty on previous answers. The goal is to provide educators and parents with a clearer picture of what students know and can do.

The system includes summative assessments for accountability, optional interim or benchmark assessments for instructional use, and an online reporting system that aims to provide students, parents, teachers, and administrators with results in a timely manner.

Yet critics point to a lack of research or evidence to show the testing will benefit students in any way. In New York City’s first round of assessment, the number of previously “proficient” students dropped significantly from standardized test results in previous years.

The tests must be given on computers that many schools don’t have. Even in schools with “technical capacity,” there is concern over the need for continual upgrades and replacements as new technology is developed.

With the assessments still in development, there are a lot of unknowns. Details about performance piece scoring are still being worked out. Some parts may be hand-scored, a change the California Department of Education estimates would not only delay results, but increase the projected cost of implementing Common Core in California schools from $1.25 billion to about $3 billion. — MP