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SMMUSD HDQTRS — Public school officials have spent the past couple of years gearing up for new curriculum standards that are in effect this school year, which focus on deeper understanding of various subjects.

The “common core” standards are a set of expectations adopted by states across the country that emphasize a new style of learning that values critical thinking over rote memorization and application of concepts to real-world situations.

Common core standards were adopted by the California Department of Education in 2010, and educators across the state have begun to brainstorm how to change classes to make sure their students can pass muster.

This week, state lawmakers agreed to move forward with the new plan, even though federal authorities have threatened to withhold federal education funds.

A bill approving the transition has received State Senate and Assembly support and will now go to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk for approval.

The computerized tests based on new common core learning goals would replace the traditional Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests, which have been used since 1999.

Federal education authorities have objected that the abrupt shift would leave the state without test scores for a year while it adopts the new system.

State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Santa Monica, who voted yes, said the bill is getting everyone to prepare for the common core, instead of focusing on what is an outdated test and model. He said the bill also eliminates second grade testing.

In response to federal authorities threatening to withhold federal education funds, Lieu said most of the education funding comes from the state. About 40 percent of the entire state budget goes to kindergarten through grade 12 and higher ed gets about 10 percent, he said.

“While we hope the federal government doesn’t cut the funds, I believe this is a good deal, regardless, because we are right on the policy,” Lieu said.

Terry Deloria, assistant superintendent of Educational Services for SMMUSD, said the school district is struggling with the misalignment between the state and federal government.

Maureen Bradford, director of assessment, research and evaluation for the SMMUSD, said school districts are in a “bit of a pickle” because their new assessment for common core won’t come on board until 2015.

“The pickle is we have begun our implementation of common core, but our students may very well be assessed on state standards,” Bradford said. “It’s a little bit of a dilemma but we’re not in this alone. All of the districts in California are struggling as well. We had been hoping that for schools and districts that participate in a field test of the new assessment system, even though we wouldn’t be getting results back, we would be excused from also doing our state tests. That appears to be in question, although a final decision hasn’t been made.”

The field testing took place last year of some questions related to the common core for a small number of students, Deloria said. The testing was through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or one of two multi-state consortia that is developing the assessments associated with common core standards.

The state is going to provide one-time help, where SMMUSD will receive about $2.1 million for instructional materials, professional development and for technology. The district first has to develop the plan and the budget and then go before the Board of Education and have public input, which should happen fairly soon, school officials said.

“Since we’re never sure we will ever see this money again or not, we are being very thoughtful about how we are going to spend it,” Deloria said, adding the district is working on a two-year plan.

The standards, which are quite rigorous, are an effort to deepen students’ understanding of both language arts and mathematics, Bradford said.

“I don’t think it’s completely different from what we are already teaching,” she said.

In common core, there’s a strong emphasis on conceptually understanding mathematics balanced with fluency in mathematical procedures. That means requiring a student to not only provide an answer to a problem, but also justify their answers and look for alternate solutions, Bradford said. For language arts, it’s about critical thinking and students developing those skills and being able to cite evidence from the text, summarize, analyze an argument and see if it’s adequately prepared and valid.

“There is more emphasis on nonfiction text than in the current standards,” Bradford said. “The whole point of common core is to prepare students for college and career. In your career, it’s more likely you’ll be asked to read and write informational pieces rather than fictional pieces.”

Last year, the district had awareness sessions conducted with principals, assistant principals and instructional leaders on the common core. Those dealt with what’s included and not included in the standards, how are they different and similar to the current standards and how they’ll be assessed differently.

This spring and summer, English and math teachers were brought together to help map out standards across the school year. The district came up with “curriculum maps or guides” that would help the teacher plan lessons around the common core.

The teachers began to flesh that year-long plan out by developing more detailed unit and lesson plans, which is still in progress.

Based on what the teachers have planned, the district has developed some short benchmark assessments to see how the students do on the standards that are taught in the first 12 weeks of school and a second assessment after another 12 weeks.

“[We] pulled items or questions that are tied specifically to the standards,” Bradford said.

The common core standards deal with a lot of critical thinking, extracting meaning out of sophisticated reading and expectations to write and problem solve in advanced ways, said Eva Mayoral, principal at Santa Monica High School.

She said that meant pulling together teachers in common subject areas and common grades to tell them they’re not alone and they would receive help navigating their students through the process.

“Specifically look at what we want kids to do, how do we know how they can do it and what are we going to do about it if they can’t and what do we do about it if they get it quickly and move on,” Mayoral said.

Deloria said the teachers have been “amazing” and district administrators are working on answering questions they may have.

This year, the district is focusing on secondary math and meeting every math teacher, by course, three times a year. District officials are meeting three times a year with the rest of the math, English and elementary teachers’ representatives.

A big piece is not only educating administrators, students, counselors and the special ed department, but also parents, Deloria said. In the month of October, the district will offer six webinars for parents with focuses on elementary, middle or high school. One of the six will also be bilingual.

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