The Common Core controversy

Opponents are concerned about the cost, the assessment test and loss of local control

The Common Core state standards rolled out in most schools this September aims to simplify education goals for teachers while deepening students' understanding of the material. The idea is to get students college- and career-ready through these standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

But as with anything new, parents and teachers have questions and concerns not only about the standards but also about the assessment test associated with the standards, Smarter Balanced.

The cost

If there are costs associated with implementing Common Core, local school districts will pay for it. The state is not funding this project or the testing. And it is the cost that worries some critics the most, said Krista Argiropolis, a member of Stop Common Core in New Hampshire and president of the Alton School Board.

However, no one from either side of the discussion can say how much the whole thing will cost. When asked, neither Tom Raffio, the president of the NH Board of Education, nor Heather Gage, chief of staff for the NH Department of Education could give a cost estimate.

Gage said it's not likely there will be a concrete figure anytime soon. The reason is because each district will be coming up with its own curriculum, each district will have different needs when it comes to costs associated with implementing Common Core. It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume however, that many, if not most districts, would have to get new textbooks, ones aligned to the Common Core and teachers have had to be trained.

But, Gage said, these are costs districts would have had to incur anyway, so many have already budgeted for that.

Raffio did offer a 2012 report from the Fordham Institute that took a look at how much it might cost each state to implement Common Core. Their findings were based on three approaches districts could take to implement the standards:

Business as Usual, which is defined as a more “traditional” approach of buying hard-copy textbooks, administering annual student assessments on paper, and delivering in-person professional development to all teachers.

Bare Bones, which was the lowest-cost alternative, employing open-source materials, annual computer-administered assessments and online professional development via webinars and modules.

Balanced Implementation, which is a blend of approaches that uses a mix of instructional materials (e.g., teacher self-published texts and/or district-produced materials), both interim and summative assessments, and a hybrid system of professional development (e.g., train-the-trainers).

A closer look at NH’s Common Core State Standards

About this series: In a three part-series, Parenting New Hampshire Magazine will examine what the Common Core State Standards initiative is, the controversy surrounding it, what it looks like in the classroom and next steps for the state.

Part 1: New Hampshire is phasing in the Common Core State Standards initiative

Part 2: What does Common Core look like in the classroom?

According to the report, New Hampshire currently spends $19.6 million for expenses related to maintaining existing standards. Under a business as usual approach, the cost would be $65.5 million, $18.1 million with a bare bones approach and $28.4 million with a balanced approach. So in short, New Hampshire could spend $46 million more, $8.9 million more or save $1.5 million depending on how each district implements the standards.

Opponents are also concerned with how much it will cost to administer the Smarter Balanced test because much of it has to be done on a computer. One might think to implement the test, districts would have to have one computer per student, but Gage said that's not the case. Teachers, she said, can test students in waves and have 12 weeks to complete all of the testing. Without purchasing additional technology, she said it will cost about the same as it does to administer the NECAP, the test currently in place.

There are minimum technology requirements to administer the Smarter Balanced test and there are online tools for schools to test their Smarter Balanced readiness. According to Stanley Freeda, the Educational Technology and Online Learning director for the NH Department of Education, as of late September, only 45 percent of the schools had participated in the online assessment. Of those, "68 percent of devices accessible to students meet the minimum requirements and therefore can be used for testing," he said in an email to Parenting NH.

"This may be a close average; however, only 45 percent of all schools have data entered into the tool, so this figure may also be misleading."

He also said that according to the assessment tool, 48 percent of students can take the test on available devices, but was quick to point out, "This is wildly inaccurate as it is based on the testing window and number of sessions per day that schools will use. Unfortunately, it seems many misunderstood the purpose of these questions, and entered the testing windows and protocols that we use for NECAP testing.

"They don't realize," he said, "they can set the testing window and number of testing sessions to suit their individual situations. So I believe this figure is much higher in reality."

In a follow-up conversation, Freeda said the majority of districts would be able to handle the technology requirements of the test with what they have already.

Gage said some districts have said their Internet connections are not fast enough for Smarter Balanced. She said the state is working with them to find ways to get them up to speed.

The test

For some, it's the test itself that's the problem. The test will assess how students, and ultimately teachers, are doing with Common Core. The test will be made up of multiple choice, essay and technology-enhanced components. There will be special tools and accommodations made for special education students and their assessments will be, as they are with the current NECAP tests, looked at through the lens of their Individual Education Plans.

Last year a handful of schools in New Hampshire were given the test to work out technological bugs that might exist in the program, Gage said. No data on performance was collected from this test, because it was just to test the software and hardware.

However, this spring, a pilot test will be given to a handful of schools and that test will assess how the school is doing with Common Core.

Laura Hainey, President of the President of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said new curriculum and new standards take a little time to perfect and frankly to reach. Teachers are worried that the public doesn't realize that test scores are going to go down before they go up.

"If we're not giving teachers the time to understand (the standards)…then it's not to going to do well," Hainey said. "And if we're not going to be able to understand them to do well to teach them, then when it comes to taking the assessment, kids aren't going to do well."

That said, she does think that the state is trying to reach out to offer help to teachers.

But, "When we change over (from NECAP to Smarter Balanced) people are going to be shocked because scores are going to go down. There's going to be a big gap. And we're not doing a good enough job of explaining that and people are going to freak because it's a completely different type of test.”

The wording, the style, some parts are paper and pencil, some parts are on computer, and students just won't be used to all that, Hainey said. Further, with more essay-style questions, students may not know how to budget their time to be able to answer them all she said.

Some are also concerned the assessment will be tied to teacher evaluations, but Gage said, that is only the case for Title One schools. And even then the tests only account for 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation. For all other schools, it's just one tool of many used in evaluations, but not a major one, she said.

Finally, some critics of the test are also concerned it may be a data-mining tool that they find offensive to student and family privacy.

Ann Marie Banfield, a member of Stop Common Core in New Hampshire and an educational liaison for Cornerstone, a New Hampshire based Policy Research non-profit organization dedicated to, "preserving New Hampshire’s traditional values, limited government, and free markets through education, information, and advocacy," said there are 400 datapoints the Department of Education is looking to collect that include medical history, political persuasion, income and other personal info.

However, this is not data collected during the Smarter Balanced test.

The "400 data point" argument is one that is often repeated and is based on an erroneous report out of Georgia, according to Politifact. In Georgia, the state was collecting additional data, as some other states do, but not through Smarter Balanced or Common Core. They collected data as part of a program called the Statewide Longitudinal Data System. Through that program they collected information such as name, grade, gender, ethnicity, birth date, attendance, enrollment history, test scores, courses taken and grade received, and things like whether the student was an English language learner or economically disadvantaged, according to Politifact.

In New Hampshire, there is no additional data collected as part of Smarter Balanced or Common Core. And the only data accessible to the state are the results of the test and those are done through percentages with no other identifying information.

Loss of local control

Opponents argue Common Core is taking control over what is taught in the classroom away from local districts.

When it comes to the actual standards, they are just that, standards – a set of goals for students to reach. To use an analogy, the standards are the bones of a body; the curriculum is the meat. The standards are set, but the curriculum is up the teachers and local districts to create.

This is actually one of the concerns among teachers, said Hainey, is that teachers are already pressed for time and this new framework means they have to come up with new curriculum and find time to do it.

In addition to curriculum remaining in local hands, districts can opt out of Common Core, which the Alton School District did in September.

"We voted 3-2 to reject Common Core," said Argiropolis, one of the three on the Alton Board to vote against Common Core. "In my opinion, and I'm not speaking for the whole board…The reason I voted no is I felt like we had a lot of unanswered questions, from the cost, the cost of testing to how it was going to impact out students."

But even the districts that opt out have to take the test.

Banfield said it's because places like Alton would still have to take the test that's the problem. The students who opt out are at risk for not passing the test. If they do this enough times, the state can label the school a focus school, come in and force the district to adhere to Common Core Standards.

But, Gage argues, the same could happen under the current standards. And Banfield agreed that as long as the curriculum of districts that opt out is robust enough, those students could just as well do fine on the Smarter Balanced test.

Lower standards

Though, she did acknowledge that the Common Core standards are more rigorous than the standards previously in place in New Hampshire, for states like California and Massachusetts their current standards are higher than what Common Core requires.

As an example she said the math standards states like California and Massachusetts were ready for Algebra 1 by eighth grade. Common Core, she said, put Algebra 1 proficiency to ninth grade.
Further, Banfield, who was a Math tutor for many years, said Common Core standards place too much emphasis on communication over computation when it comes to Math.

"You do have to know some of that," she said. "But I can't explain to you how polynomial long division problems work. I don't know how to put that into words. But I know how to do it."

Her concern, she said, is that kids will also not be able to communicate that and do poorly on the test, even though they know how to do the problems. Ultimately it's the emphasis on students being able to communicate the reasons why math works the way it does, over traditional rote methods, that will keep them from being prepared for jobs in the STEM fields.

However, Gage said, even though curriculum is up to the teachers, rote memorization of the basics in not going anywhere.

"Students will still have to memorize their multiplication tables and all of that," she said.

The difference will be the addition of practical application through project-based learning as well as giving students a sense of how math works the way that it does.

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Alstead.

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