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A Nampa elementary student working on a classroom computer which will be used to give a Common Core related test later this school year.Idaho public school kids had a new set of learning objectives guiding their schools' curriculum and their teachers' lessons when they arrived for the start of the 2013 school year. These are the Common Core State Standards. They cover math and English language arts, which includes reading, writing and related subjects.The Common Core (which Idaho’s Department of Education now refers to as the Idaho Core Standards) was developed by a consortium of states and has been adopted by 45, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories.Timeline 2007: Informal talks begin between a few state school chiefs on writing shared standards. Idaho's Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna says he was involved in the first discussion. 2009: Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governor's Association form the Common Core States Standards Initiative to create a set of shared standards. March 2010: First draft of the Common Core Standards released for public comment. June 2010: Final draft released. Sept.-Oct 2010: Idaho's State Board of Education holds public meetings on Common Core. November 2010: Idaho State Board of Education votes to adopt the standards. January 2011: Idaho's House and Senate Education Committees vote to adopt the standards. Fall 2013: Common Core becomes the standards for all Idaho public schools.The StandardsThis map shows the states that haven't adopted Common Core standards.Here are a few examples of the Common Core Standards, these are for kindergarten.Reading:With prompting and support ask and answer questions about key details in a text.With prompting and support, identify the reasons an author gives to support points in a story.Math:Count to 100 by ones and by tens.Identify whether the number of objects in one group is greater than, less than, or equal to the number of objects in another group, e.g., by using matching and counting strategiesHere are some links where you can read all the math and English standards for all grades.Idaho had standards prior to Common Core. States have been required to have basic standards for a long time. Supporters say the new Common Core standards are more rigorous and will help students develop skills like critical thinking that they will need in college and in the workforce. Compare and contrast for yourself, read Idaho’s pre-Common Core math and English standards.The 'Common' In Common CoreCommon Core is not just about having high-quality standards. Theoretically, states could write standards on their own that are just as good. The common in Common Core is the idea that a third grader could move from Idaho to Oregon or Florida without missing out on learning fractions somewhere along the way. But it’s also about comparing how students in different states are doing at meeting their standards. Before Common Core, states not only wrote their own standards, but also their own tests to measure students against those state-specific standards.The TestStates are mostly evenly divided in two groups to develop two Common Core linked tests. Idaho joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. While the group that wrote the standards did not take federal money, the groups developing the tests do.00000176-d8fc-dce8-adff-faff72490001The Smarter Balanced Assessment is still under development. In the 2012/2013 school year, some Idaho schools piloted an early version. In the spring of 2014, all Idaho schools will give the test to students in 3rd through 11th grades, though some schools may not have to test 9th and 10th graders. This 2014 test will not be used to measure student learning. It is a practice test to help its developers work out the bugs. The final version is scheduled to be ready in 2015. Take a practice Smarter Balanced test here.The Smarter Balanced test will replace the ISAT which Idaho has been using for several years to measure student progress. However, Idaho’s State Department of Education will likely keep the name ISAT and apply it to this new test.Idaho’s old ISAT was entirely multiple choice questions, but the Smarter Balanced Assessment will have multiple choice and other types of questions like written responses. It uses Computer Adaptive Technology so questions will be tailored to how well a student is doing, getting harder or easier depending on previous answers. OppositionThough the change to Common Core has been in the works for years, it largely flew under the radar. Nationally, opposition began to grow in 2012. Early the next year, opponents of Common Core appeared in Idaho. Opposition has been a grass-roots effort and has come from the far right and far left on the political spectrum.In Idaho, opposition to Common Core has been led by the group Idahoans For Local Education, founded by Boise stay-at-home-mom Stephanie Zimmerman, read what she says about Common Core here. The conservative activist group the Idaho Freedom Foundation is also a prominent opponent of the standards.More recently, the anti-Common Core cause has been taken up by national conservative organizations like Americans For Prosperity and FreedomWorks, which wants ending Common Core to be the first step in a much larger effort that includes eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. SupportersIdaho’s Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Gov. C.L. “Butch" Otter have been prominent supporters of Common Core, even while the standards were still being developed. Many other influential people and organizations have also come to Common Core’s defense including business leaders and education groups. Last summer, many of Idaho's Common Core supporters formed a coalition to promote the standards called Idahoans for Excellence in Education. You can see the list of members here and read why they support Common Core here.Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio

Can A Test Measure Critical Thinking? Schools Hope To Find Out

Students take a quiz in Eric Miller's eighth grade algebra class at Lakes Magnet Middle School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Students take a quiz in Eric Miller's eighth grade algebra class at Lakes Magnet Middle School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Northwest parents of school-aged children have a new acronym to learn: The SBAC.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is a new standardized test that's set to replace current state math and language arts tests in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It's billed as the “next generation” of assessment -- a test that hopes to capture students' abilities with more depth than traditional standardized tests.

But some critics say the new test runs into the same old problems.

"This new test was going to be very difficult"

The SBAC is made up of a group of 24 states. And last year, hundreds of schools, including many in the Northwest, got their first taste of what the new test is like.

Seventh graders at Lakes Magnet Middle School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, filed into the computer lab in the school's library for the test.

Ryan Gillespie, a math coach for the district, says this new test has been talked about for years.

“It was almost becoming lore," he says. "You know, this new test was going to be very difficult. We were just excited to see if the myths were true.”

The pilot didn't go off without a hitch. The online test was sluggish at times. The dragging and highlighting functions didn't work so well. But Gillespie says the questions themselves were noticeably different.

Here's an example. In the past, students might be given this equation: 3x + 1 = 9, and asked to solve for x.

The kids would then "do a minus one here, a minus one there," and then divide both sides by three -- to get x = 2 2/3.

"So it's an 'if I do this, I do this, then I circle my answer and I'm done,'" Gillespie explains.

But, he says, the student might not understand what that two and two thirds means or why it’s x.

On the SBAC, Gillespie says kids might still have to solve for x, but they were also asked questions like this:

Here's the equation, 3x + 1 = 9, and here's five different real world scenarios. Which of these five scenarios could be modeled using this equation?

"So, kids have to understand that mathematical sentence, that language, understand conceptually what it means," says Gillespie. "And it was something we've never been evaluated on.”

A higher bar

The SBAC is designed to accomplish something that parents and teachers have long sought: an assessment aimed at measuring critical thinking. The test includes multiple choice questions, but also more complex “performance tasks” where students have to take in information and give a long-form answer. Schools will be able to see how they stack up to other states and track year-to-year student growth from grade 3 on.

Mike Nelson, director of curriculum and assessment for the Coeur d'Alene School District, says parents may see proficiency levels go down at first because students are being asked to clear a higher bar.

“In my history as an assessment guy, this is a much different test than what we've seen before," Nelson says. "And it's a better test. We want kids, yes, to have requisite knowledge but we want them to apply and use that knowledge for their betterment.”

The test is tied to the new, more rigorous Common Core standards in math, reading and writing that most states have adopted. Those standards have proven contentious among some parents and politicians, but among educators, it's not the standards -- it’s the tests that are more controversial.

Too hard of a test?

At a recent hearing in the Idaho legislature, Bruce Cook, a curriculum director from Rexburg, Idaho, said kids as young as eight and nine may not have the computer skills to take the SBAC.

“We have had to put money and time into keyboarding," he says. "We didn't have a keyboarding program for third and fourth graders. I don't know that most schools did. But we surely didn't.”

One poll found only 27 percent of teachers in Idaho support the SBAC. Some schools say the test is just too hard -- and too long. The SBAC isn't timed, but it's expected to range from six hours in total for elementary schoolers, up to seven-and-a-half hours for older students.

Kansas dropped out of the Smarter Balanced consortium late last year to create its own test. Alaska plans to follow. And there are rumblings about doing the same in Idaho.

Washington State University education researcher Amy Roth McDuffie says the biggest problem isn't about the SBAC itself -- or any test aligned to the Common Core standards. It's how much value teachers, districts and even the state put on the test. Last year, she co-authored a report based on surveys of middle school math teachers. It found most teachers planned to use the test as a guide for classroom instruction, in part because the test weighs heavily on teachers' own evaluations.

“My concerns then are if the focus so much is on seeing the test -- and it's understandable that they take that stance -- then are we really aiming to teach to the Common Core, or are we teaching to a test and what can easily be tested?”

McDuffie worries the Common Core standards states have crafted so carefully could ultimately be less important than a single test.

But Ryan Gillespie, the math instructor in Coeur d'Alene, has a different view of it. He says teaching to this test -- if that’s what happens -- wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.

“Math has always been something that's much more dynamic to me than just memorizing procedures," he says. "And so, when I was watching this test and I was seeing what kids were having to do, to me, I was thrilled, because the questions were asking kids to use the skills (that were) why I got into math in the first place.”

This spring, teachers and students across the Northwest will get to experience the full test for the first time. And for this year only, the results won't count. Schools are running a field test of theSBAC, a kind of test of the test. You can even take a practice version of the test yourself. 

By 2018, it's expected to become a graduation requirement in Washington and Idaho and one option to demonstrate essential skills in Oregon.

Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.