Drop in test scores won't be full story on Caldwell County schools

Sep. 22, 2013 @ 08:34 AM

After a year of implementing the new Common Core state standards, Caldwell County teachers and administrators are awaiting a verdict on just how well they did.

That verdict is likely to come in the form of a large drop in standardized test scores, but a drop doesn't mean the verdict will be bad.

The standards, which outline what students should know after completing each grade, have been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. In North Carolina, the standards were implemented during the 2012-13 school year.

Administrators in Caldwell County said they feel the first year of implementation went well, but they won’t know for sure until the results from statewide standardized tests come in this November.

Other states that have adopted the standards, including New York and West Virginia, have seen 10- to 30-percent drops in test scores in the first year after implementation.

Superintendent Steve Stone said he hopes the district’s scores will still be higher than the state average because administrators spent more time rolling out the standards, transitioning some subjects to the Common Core in 2011-12 and others in 2012-13.

The Common Core represents both an attempt to set expectations for what students learn in public schools and a move from rote memorization to instruction with a heavy focus on critical thinking.

Development of the standards was spearheaded by the National Governors Association, a bipartisan organization of U.S. governors, because states had varying standards. Children in North Carolina's standards could be more rigorous than Maryland's in one subject but far behind in another. Adopting common standards was supposed to level the playing field and make it clear what was expected of students in every grade level -- whether they were in North Carolina or North Dakota.

So supporters are careful to say the standards are not a federal program and are not nationally mandated – that they are not a curriculum but a set of curriculum guidelines. In Caldwell, administrators have had to remind Stone not to call the standards a national curriculum, said Caryl Burns, the district’s associate superintendent for educational program services.

The last two years have been a time of “intense professional development” for Caldwell County’s teachers and curriculum-focused administrators, Burns said.

Administrators selected and trained a group of teachers, who then trained their colleagues on the Common Core. Other school districts brought in trainers from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and other organizations, but the Caldwell County Schools brought in “very few” trainers from outside the district, Burns said.

That was, to some extent, a new approach for the district – which has utilized teacher-trainers in the past but never on this scale, spreading out to train all 800-some teachers in the system.

“I think collaboration has really expanded across the entire district,” said Vickie Sproul, elementary school director for the Caldwell County Schools. “We have taken the time to talk about what we’re doing and not just push it out. We’ve used that expertise from teachers.”

On a local level, Burns said, spreading information about the Common Core has been a tough task – especially since administrators and teachers were focused on learning the standards themselves.

Information about the Common Core has largely made its way home in backpacks, in the form of teacher newsletters and notes, Burns said. But starting this year, the district decided to take some control of word of mouth as well. Teacher assistants were trained on the basics of the Common Core, the idea being that they could answer questions coming at them from acquaintances who knew they worked for the school system.

Since making their way into the education policy discussion, the Common Core standards have attracted critics from all sides of the political spectrum. Tea Party conservatives have warned of a federal takeover of education and a weakening of local control. Parent groups have said the standards are too difficult. Some states that previously voted to adopt the standards have since voted to halt their implementation.

The federal government has stood in support of the standards, offering incentives through Race to the Top, a $4 billion initiative designed to boost student achievement. But proponents, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have repeatedly said the standards are not a federal curriculum. 

“The federal government didn’t write them, didn’t approve them and doesn’t mandate them,” Duncan told the American Society of News Editors in June. “And we never will.”