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TJ Jerke, Published August 31 2013

ND ushers in new education standards, tests

BISMARCK – North Dakota teachers will soon be preparing students for more rigorous national testing standards that take effect in 2015.

The College and Career Readiness Standards – more rigorous than some existing state standards, less rigorous in other areas – are crafted to provide students around the country with a clear understanding of what they are expected to learn and prepare them for college and a career.

As of July 1, if they had not started, school districts around North Dakota were told by the Department of Public Instruction to begin planning for the new standards, also known as the Common Core Standards, for English and math.

Schools will drop the North Dakota State Assessment test and move to the new Common Core test by spring 2015.

The standards have drawn mixed reviews as they focus on “less about what you know, and more what you can do with what you know,” said Ryan Townsend, director of academic standards for the Department of Public Instruction.

That approach doesn’t appeal to everyone.

After reading many sample test questions, state Rep. Brenda Heller said the standards are putting too much emphasis on drawing out emotions and working in groups.

She said the math tests were the most alarming.

“It’s very scary because they don’t care if the kids come up with the right answer. They are more interested in the strategy the kids use to come up with the answer,” she said.

Because the standards aren’t required to be fully implemented until spring 2015, toward the end of the 2015 legislative session, Heller, a Republican from Beulah, said she is looking for a way to stop it.

“If there is a legislative way to stop it, we definitely will,” she said, adding that she is seeking other legislators to support her plan. “Most (legislators) are unaware it’s happening.”

Aaron Knodel, a West Fargo teacher and president of the North Dakota Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts, a group of more than 150 mainly high school language arts teachers, said the new standards are needed, as some current standards are outdated.

“The shift in language arts went from speaking and listening to the 21st century, when it’s more about working in a small group to solve a problem and using democratic procedures to work with

others,” he said.

Kirsten Baesler, superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction, said the standards are a response to business and higher education leaders who say that students are not ready to be successful past high school.

“They’re saying, ‘Students don’t have what it takes,’ ” Baesler said. “K-12 responded to that, and as a nation, educators said we have to do better.”

The concerns were picked up by governors around the country, who worked with their state education officials to craft new standards.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards and agreed to test students on them by the 2014-15 school year. Minnesota has only adopted the standards for English and will revise its math standards for the 2015-16 school year. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have not adopted the standards.

The new standards for English take effect in Minnesota when schools start Tuesday.

Beth Aune, director of academic standards and instructional effectiveness for the Minnesota Department of Education, said she hasn’t felt much pushback from educators or the general public around Minnesota.

“When people read them, they seem to make sense,” she said. “They make sense to parents who see the kinds of skills they want their kids to have. Employers say, ‘Yes, these are the kind of skills we want in the workplace.’ ”

Testing and scores

This fall, North Dakota schools will administer their last state assessment test – a paper and pencil test. They will then have the ability to volunteer and give their students a field test this spring using the new online assessment of the new standards. Schools will then be required to administer the new tests in the spring of 2015.

Rob Bauer, assistant director of standards and achievement for the Department of Public Instruction, and the state assessment coordinator, said they’re determining whether schools will be able to administer the new online tests. Tests will be done for the same grades as before – third grade through eighth grade and 11th grade.

Bauer said the move from paper to a computer-based assessment is a major step. The new tests will be adaptive assessments that will deliver different questions for each student and provide more immediate feedback.

“We’ll be able to get to what we need to know about the students’ performance on the standard a lot quicker,” he said.

Baesler sees the new standards as more rigorous than the current state standards, and expects the new Common Core test scores to appear as if they are dropping at first.

But, she said, it shouldn’t be cause for concern because students will still have the same capabilities and knowledge, and scores will come back to normal, just fewer will hit the mark right away because of the higher standards.

“The jump for new standards is going to leave students really needing to make up and learn what they were supposed to have learned and all this new stuff, too,” Baesler said.

As an example, North Dakota first-graders currently must show that different combinations of coins can have the same value. Under the Common Core Standards, first-graders will have to solve word problems using all forms of money and the appropriate symbols.

The new first-grade Common Core standard is more challenging because it contains second-grade material, as it expects a student to already understand the different combinations of coins.

North Dakota is more rigorous is some areas, too. Heller is concerned about the state having to lower its standards.

“These standards are going to make everyone equal so states that are ahead are going to have to come down,” she said.

Local level input

While they are national standards, Baesler said local school districts will continue to do all the “heavy lifting” in deciding what materials and information teachers need to meet the standards.

Jody Thompson, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the Grand Forks Public School District, said the district is just getting started implementing the standards.

He said the district will spend a lot of time this school year educating the school board and teachers about the background and rationale behind the new standards.

Some of the district’s curriculum is currently up for review, which Thompson said works perfectly to incorporate the new standards.