La Cañada parents question new Common Core standards

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That appeared to be the sentiment of a group of residents who turned out Tuesday night for the regular meeting of the La Cañada Unified School District to share their thoughts on the new Common Core standards being employed this year in schools statewide.

They voiced concerns about the new system — which will replace California Content Standards and its STAR testing with computerized tests and entirely new lesson plans — asking why La Cañada students need to change when they already demonstrate proficiency, and casting aspersions on the state’s motives for making the transition.

The discussion followed a presentation by Anais Wenn, the district’s new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, which provided an overview of the new standards and what the district will do to implement them in the classroom over the next two years.

Wenn explained that the Common Core standards aim to better prepare students for college and the workplace by providing rigorous content that engages critical thinking skills, focuses on literacy and gets students to apply what they learn to real-world arguments and scenarios.

For example, students will be asked not only to solve math problems, but to write about the thought process they used to solve the problem and provide alternate solutions for changed variables.

“The level of rigor and analysis … it’s much higher, and the expectations are much higher for our students,” Wenn said. “It’s way above what we’ve been asking our students to do.”

Adopting Common Core makes states eligible to benefit from more than $110 billion in federal “Race to the Top” grants rolled out by the Obama administration in 2009. So far, 45 states have adopted the standards.

Still, some La Cañada residents remain skeptical and take issue with the fact that the standards diminish local control, could impose a political agenda in the classroom, and call for the creation of a central database of student information that could be accessed by the federal government.

“Do you think consorting with the federal government on politically correct, watered-down standards is really going to help our schools?” La Cañada resident Rex Nishimura asked Wenn. “Our kids do great right now on SAT tests under the current standards.”

Wenn replied that historically, school districts have not had much of a say in what standards the California Department of Education has adopted for use in schools and that it is only up to the district to decide how to effectively implement the standards.

An initial statewide “awareness phase” allows districts to introduce Common Core to stakeholders and make initial plans for system implementation, the education department reports. As yet, many of the details, such as which textbooks will be used and where resources will be applied, have yet to be determined.

For example, details of the statewide computer-based standardized testing, set to begin during the 2014-15 school year, will not be discussed by the state Board of Education until its October meeting.

While the audience expressed worries about the federal government tracking students through the computerized test information, La Cañada school board members expressed their own concerns with the transition, namely the district’s technological readiness and how a technological learning curve might affect test scores.

Board member Joel Peterson discussed the potential for difficulty in getting La Cañada Unified students ready to test by computer, especially as the district upgrades its own technological infrastructure. It’s important, he said, to avoid “dropped calls.”

“We can’t risk having our students exposed to that in a testing environment,” he said.

Board member Andrew Blumenfeld stressed that with the increased rigor of the new curriculum, there would also likely be an academic learning curve as students made the transition.

“It’s still going to be a dramatic shift for our students and teachers,” he said. “That’s going to mean some growing pains and that’s going to mean lower test scores in the beginning.”

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