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Will California students ace the Common Core?

Hughgett Mendoza, left, Brittany Loew, and students throughout California will be tested this spring based on their Common Core learning.
Annie Gilbertson / KPCC
Hughgett Mendoza, left, Brittany Loew, and students throughout California will be tested this spring based on their Common Core learning.

Bart Williamson, a parent from Anaheim, worries the sudden switch is upsetting students midway through their school career. This is the first story in KPCC's ongoing series, Classroom Core, that takes a close look at how the Common Core teacher standards are playing out in schools in Southern California. 

Starting this month, California students' reading and math skills are being tested with new assessments based on the Common Core state learning standards.

Students grades 3 to 8 and 11 will take the tests, and some Los Angeles educators say their students are ready to shine.

"For us as educators, it's beautiful. I think it's a hell of a way to think," said Robert Poyer, dean at Central City Value High School, a charter in Koreatown. "I feel like we've embraced it, and we are prepared."

But critics complain it's still too early to put Common Core to the test. At some schools, staffers said new books aren't ordered, teachers haven't had enough training, and technology for the tests is sparse or unreliable. 

While initial test scores may be low, the figures will set a baseline for measuring individual student and school progress in the years to come.

Bart Williamson, a parent from Anaheim, worries the sudden switch is upsetting students midway through their school career.

“It’s on the back of my 14-year-old daughter who is trying to adopt this change," Williamson said at a recent parents' gathering at KPCC. "As a parent it is extremely frustrating to see her in tears for the first time in her life with school."

Parent Suzy Hughes from Baldwin Hills said she can see Common Core developing her 2nd-grader's critical thinking skills, even if it sometimes leaves her scratching her head.

"Sometimes I'm stumped when his homework comes home and it says, 'Show how you know.' I'm like, I don't even know," she said.

Critical thinking 

Common Core rose out of an effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices to develop consistent teaching standards across the states. 

The U.S. Department of Education began encouraging states to adopt the Common Core standards with initiatives such as Race to the Top, which offered $4.3 billion in competitive grants to states committing to various education reforms. Eventually, 43 states and Washington, D.C., signed on.

While this spring marks the first time the tests will be used to measure proficiency, some schools began transitioning to the new standards as early as 4 1/2 years ago when California adopted the Common Core.

Central City Value High School began by testing out new textbooks, sending representatives to conferences and assigning teachers leadership roles.

Jenna Kamp, an English teacher and critical thinking chair, helps her school implement the new way of teaching.

To train teachers and students, she leans on the guiding principles of the nonprofit Foundation for Critical Thinking: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic and fairness. 

One recent school day, her composition class spent time evaluating each other's writings. 

“Which of these intellectual standards should we be focusing on today?” Kamp asks her students, some still munching on graham crackers from breakfast period.

"Clarity," shouted a student.

"Depth," said another.

“Depth! Depth is a biggie," she agrees. 

Student Brittany Loew said it’s a challenging assignment as she evaluates a classmate's work.

“I have to look at her work and figure out if she elaborated enough, and provided enough examples," Loew said. "She gave a lot of examples, so that was good.”

Creators of the Common Core say the students can sharpen their approach to cognitive tasks with classroom work that challenge them to analyze and problem-solve.

Poyer said educators were attracted to Common Core because schools had become driven by state tests mandated under No Child Left Behind, the federal act that imposes sanctions on schools unable to show growth in their test scores. 

“Everyone [was] teaching to the state test," Poyer said. "What is the answer? A, B, C or D?”

Poyer said it made for drilling, not thinking. 

Waiting on proof

California schools wrap up Common Core testing over the next couple months, but parents won't have data on how well students are doing until scores are released eight weeks later. 

Educators warn students' scores may dip below parents' expectations. 

Michael Kirst, the California Board of Education president and advocate of Common Core, asked for patience. 

"We're sending clear signals that we don't expect everybody to know all this and be able to do all of these things in the Common Core in the first year," Kirst said. "Really, this is the beginning, in spring 2015, that will roll out over a number of years."

Back at Central City High, Raymond Vasquez was critiquing his classmates’ latest paper.

“This person chose 'paradox,' and I kind of was confused," Vasquez admitted.

Paradox is a concept I wasn’t exposed to until college. “It’s like when two seemingly contradictory things are both true," I said.

“Right. To express a deeper meaning," Vasquez confidently replied, without needing to sneak a peak at his flash cards tucked away in his backpack.