As the school year drew to a close, Minnesota parents received a warning that their children may receive lower scores on standardized tests than last year, now that the state has adopted new national benchmarks known as the Common Core State Standards.
In a May 30 letter to parents, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote that because Minnesota schools began using more rigorous standards to teach English arts last fall, schools also gave students more challenging tests to measure their progress towards meeting higher expectations.
As a result, Cassellius wrote, "we may see what looks like a drop in reading test scores when they are reported this summer." However, she said it would not be appropriate to compare a student's test scores with a previous year's as they measure different sets of expectations.
Minnesota's latest move to improve teaching methods, implement tougher standards and ways to measure student performance mirrors a national trend that began with the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind policy that mandated increased reliance on standardized tests.
But as most states join an effort to standardize math and reading education benchmarks, Minnesota will only be a partial partner in the latest nationwide push, which establishes a framework for what students should be learning from kindergarten to high school.
READING STANDARDS ONLY
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have accepted the Common Core standards that seek to improve student knowledge of math and reading. But Minnesota adopted the Common Core standards only in reading. The state will opt for its own math standards, as state education officials say they are more rigorous than the new national benchmarks.
Concerned that students in the United States were losing ground to their international counterparts in college and career readiness, education leaders from several states began writing the Common Core standards in 2009. They received guidance from the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and funding from private foundations. Much of the money, about $150 million, came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
State and national education officials also feared that the patchwork of individual state standards across the country did not allow for consistent measurement of student achievement.
Under the Common Core standards, there are specific goals for each grade level. For example, the first grade math standards dictate that students understand addition and subtraction, whole number relationships and place values, linear measurements and geometric shapes.
The reading and writing standards push students to read more complex text as they move through the grades. They also require students to demonstrate comprehension, through class discussion or writing projects.
Minnesota's education leaders thought the new reading and writing standards were a good fit for the state and put them into place in 2010. The guidelines have since worked their way into the curriculum in classrooms.
They represent an improvement over Minnesota's previous reading and writing standards, said Lori Helman, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Minnesota's College of Education.
"The Common Core standards really take us to a higher level in terms of comprehension, application," Helman said. "So it's become less of a 'learn how to sound out these letters' and much more of a 'take a piece of text and really work with it and understand it and use it in daily life practices.'"
NEW STANDARDS, NEW ASSESSMENTS
With those new standards come new assessments to measure how students are mastering essential skills. For the first time, they were included in this spring's Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests, or MCAs.
The new tests are considered more difficult because they're designed to prevent students from making educated guesses from the wording of questions. Instead, they require students to fully read and understand the passages in the test. Given how closely parents monitor their children's performance on standardized tests, Cassellius thought it would be appropriate to warn them of the expected dip in reading and writing scores when the results are released in coming months.
"This is the first year that we tested those standards. So last year's scores won't be comparable to this year's scores statistically," Casseillius said. "It's going to be very challenging to try to explain that to the public this fall."
In Kentucky, the first state to adopt the Common Core, the number of students considered proficient in reading dropped by a third when the state began testing students on the tougher standards in 2011-2012.
While Minnesota moves forward with the new national standards for reading and writing, state officials opted out of the math standards. Nationally, some mathematicians have criticized the Common Core for delaying coverage of certain topics, such as algebra, and said the math standards don't match those of high-performing countries such as Singapore.
The writers of the standards defend them by arguing, for example, that algebraic concepts are covered extensively before high school, even if the standards don't include a formal algebra course by eighth grade. They've also pointed to research suggesting they are similar to standards elsewhere in the world.
RIGOROUS MATH STANDARDS
In 2008, Minnesota adopted a more rigorous set of standards that laid out what math skills students should master every year from kindergarten to 12th grade.
When state was given the choice of signing on to the new Common Core, teachers and officials at the state Department of Education agreed that the state's own standards were best.
The decision was made by Cassellius's predecessor, Alice Seagren and then Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican. But Cassellius supports the move.
Cassellius said Minnesota's math standards are more challenging than those in the Common Core - and that the homegrown standards require deeper knowledge of math concepts, and mandates that students master them earlier than the national standards require.
For example, Minnesota students are required to finish Algebra I by 8th grade and Algebra II by 10th grade, something the Common Core does not mandate.It can mean more time in the classroom to achieve that mastery. Some students, however, may need more time in the classroom to meet the new state standards.
They likely include 15 freshmen at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minn., who take two math classes each day, for a total of 110 minutes daily. One of the classes, called "support" math, is a supplement to the regular math class students take earlier in the day, because the students are struggling in that class.
"It can be really draining on them, but they need it," teacher Jessica Rice said.
More than half of the students come from homes where English is not the primary language.
The extra instruction aims to help them keep up with Minnesota's math standards.
"We focus on wrapping up the linear algebra piece, as well as starting with the quadratic and understanding quadratics and parabolas and solving those types of equations," Rice said.
POLITICAL BACKLASH AGAINST STANDARDS
As Minnesota moves ahead, albeit partially, with the system of national standards, advocates of the Common Core standards are dealing with a political backlash from state legislatures, which must sign off on the requirements.
So far, state lawmakers in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama, South Carolina and Utah have considered repealing implementation of the new standards.
Leading the charge against the new national standards are members of conservative groups and some liberal organizations who fear the Common Core represents overreach by the federal government into decisions about curriculum best made at the local level.
The Obama administration has enthusiastically promoted the Common Core. Federal education officials require states to adopt rigorous standards to be eligible for waivers from No Child Left Behind, or to complete for Race to the Top Grants.
Common Core supporters point out that the new standards were not developed by the Obama administration, or the federal government. They were written by the nation's governors and state education officials.
One reason the new standards have grown controversial may be their price tag. They are expected to cost American schools billions of dollars, said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University in Washington D.C., a non-partisan group that has monitored the implementation of the Common Core in the nation's schools.
"I think some of the drama and consternation that we're hearing come from a little bit of misunderstanding about what these standards really are, what they mean and how they're going to play out in the long term," Ferguson said.
In states where there are no tests to assess students on the new standards, new tests are being developed for the 2014-15 school year. Education officials hope for quality tests that can also be used to assess student progress throughout the year.
But they will add to the load of assessment testing that many teachers already claim takes time away from classroom instruction, and because they are intended to be administered online, the tests will require additional investments in technology for many schools.
Ferguson expects pushback on the Common Core to continue as states approach implementation, although she thinks most states will likely go ahead with the new standards, rather than leave behind the work they've put in so far.
But she also warns that the nation won't know how well the new Common Core standards are working, even if they're implemented on time, for at least another decade.
This article was produced with the support of The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.