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Digging down to the core

Editor’s note: This is the third in a multi-part series about the new Common Core State Standards.

In June 2010, Illinois adopted a revised set of learning standards known as the Common Core State Standards, which are part of a trend toward national standards. In addition to Illinois, the standards have been adopted by every state except Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia and Alaska.

Illinois is currently in the transition process, and the new assessment system will be in place for the 2014-15 school year.

Some schools have gotten a early start on implementing the new standards.

“I don’t think what we’re doing is especially magical,” said Ladd Superintendent Michelle Zeko. “We just got started sooner.”

When the new standards were announced, Zeko said she realized her kindergarten students would never take the traditional Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), which is taken by students in third, fifth, sixth and eighth grades every spring. Instead, students will be tested using the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment test, which will be aligned to the new Core standards.

So Zeko and the Ladd board decided to completely make the jump to the Core standards for the kindergarten pupils for the 2010-11 school year. The second year those students — then in first grade — and the new kindergarten class, followed the Core program, and this year, kindergarten through second grade are taught exclusively to the Core standards.

Zeko said when they first looked at the Core standards, they didn’t look very different from the current Illinois Learning Standards.

“But when you got into the specifics, it was how things were taught,” she said.

Zeko said following the Core standards means students don’t learn about as many things at one time, but they learn them more in-depth.

For example, when students learn addition, they might learn how to add single digit numbers in first grade. In second grade, they would review what they learned the previous year, and add two digit numbers. In third grade, there would be more review, and then learn about carrying.

“There would be only a little time spent on each concept,” Zeko said. “Now we spend a lot of time on one concept, such as addition, until it is completely understood.”

Part of the challenge at Ladd and other schools is that the older students still take the ISATs every spring.

“It’s a concern because we have a foot in both worlds,” Zeko said.

Zeko said the staff spends a lot of time trying to implement the Core standards for the older students, but yet those students must still learn the material that will be covered on the ISAT assessments.

Part of the problem with the ISAT assessment was that it wasn’t based on the same standards the high schools’ Prairie State Achievement Exam tested on. Across the state, many students who score high on the ISAT are faced with significantly lower scores on the PSAE test.

“There was not a connection between the standards,” Zeko said. “It was a whole different set of expectations.”

So far, the new standards seem to be working well. Zeko said they have used a new test aligned to the Core standards to assess the younger students, and they are pleased with the results.

In addition to aligning better with high school standards, the Core standards will help students who move from one district to another. Zeko said they often received new students who were behind the Ladd students in what material they had been taught.

With the Core standards being followed almost nation-wide, Zeko said that problem should become a thing of the past.

“Eventually it will all work out,” Zeko said.

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