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What the Common Core is (and isn't) 

Standards

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By now, you've probably heard of the Common Core State Standards.

Simply put, the Common Core is an attempt to ensure that what students, at all grade levels, are learning in Washington state is about the same as what students in, say, Idaho or New York are learning. It says, here's when kids need to know how to read. This is when kids need to know how to add fractions. This is how kids need to write.

In many states, according to the conservative Fordham Institute, the Common Core is much tougher than the old standards.

That's caused some teachers to question whether the Common Core standards are appropriate for early levels of development. Liberal groups worry about more standardized testing and pressure on teachers, while conservatives fret about losing even more control of education at the local level.

"The misinformation is everywhere," says Wendy Watson, director of secondary curriculum for Spokane Public Schools. She says it's absolutely false that local districts don't have a say in the curriculum.

And no, Common Core wasn't written by the Obama administration — it was compiled by a coalition of state leaders and educators. States can even modify it — Idaho added a cursive requirement.

Whenever you encounter anger over an allegedly weird "Common Core" worksheet, quiz or textbook, be suspicious. The Common Core is not a curriculum. It guides what students need to know, but leaves a lot of wiggle room over how to get there. If the outrage is about a science or history assignment, remember Common Core guides literacy standards in those subjects, but says nothing about content.

The panic has obscured an actual educational scandal: Textbook companies are just slapping Common Core stickers on the cover to sell them to districts, Watson says, even when they're not tailored to the new standards. ♦


The Big Math Test

With the days of the controversial standardized WASL tests long over, Spokane elementary and middle school students have instead been taking the Measurements of Student Progress. This spring, the district ran a field test of yet another standardized exam, meant to replace the MSP and the High School Proficiency Exam: the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

It's the Common Core's most visible impact so far. A consortium of more than 20 states will use the same standardized test.

Once the Smarter Balanced test scores begin to be released, it will be possible to directly compare the performance of Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, and Los Angeles students. In many communities, the tests are far more difficult.

The new tests will be longer. The multiple-choice questions can have multiple correct answers, requiring students to select all answers that apply. They're assigned "performance tasks," where they might read an essay and then write about it, or watch a video in order to solve a math problem.

"We are finally moving away from a stagnant, multiple-choice-only test to a test that is able to better measure our students, and what they truly know and are able to do," said Tom Luna, outgoing superintendent of the Idaho Department of Education.

— DANIEL WALTERS

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