The Common Core NYC | Everything NYC Families Need to Know About The Common Core (Part Two)

The implementation of Common Core State Standards has begun. Now what? Our two-part series on the Common Core answers some key questions about the standards, including what they mean for standardized tests in NYC schools.

The first article in the series provides general information to support NYC families in understanding the Common Core. The second part looks at how the Common Core affects NYC students, and specifically addresses what NYC families can expect in terms of standardized testing and the Common Core.

States all across the USA just implemented new teaching standards, curricula guidelines, and learning expectations for students, collectively called the "Common Core." Since these new standards are quite different from what schools have used in the past, parents are probably confused about the system, or worried that children will be underprepared for Common Core assessments. Families may wonder:

• What is the relationship of the Regents Exam to the Common Core—will this change?

• Will my kid have to take the Regents Exam on Common Core Standards? • What changes should I expect for my kid in ELA Assessments/Exams?

• What changes should I expect for my kid in Math Assessments/Exams?

• What is PARCC, and how is it related to Common Core?

• Will there be more standardised testing with the Common Core? • What if my kid bombed the first Common Core exam?

• How do I help my kid with the Common Core standards?

This article was written to answer these questions and provide some helpful information on the Common Core and standardized testing.

The Common Core NYC| What do the Regents Exams Have to Do With New Standards in NYC?

The Regents Exams are administered in New York State high schools and most NYC high school students need to take them as a requirement for earning a high school diploma. Some schools (Hunter College High School, Urban Academy, and many private schools, for example) are exempted from this requirement because students fulfill the Regents Diploma required material through classroom work. To find out whether your child needs to take the Regents, reach out to the academic advisor at your kid’s high school.

For most NYC high school students, the Regents in Math, English, History/Geography/Social Studies, or Science will be required exams. Since the Common Core standards only affect Math and ELA/literacy subject areas, students who must take the Science or History/Geography/Social Studies Regents will see no change in test format or structure.

For the Math and English exams, the Regents will be aligned with the Common Core standards. These reforms plan to make sure that students master the foundational knowledge and skills that they’ll need for college and beyond, just like the Common Core standards themselves. The Board of Regents officially adopted the new standards in 2011, so the first “new” Regents were really the first tests in 2012! After two years of revision—which is still an ongoing process—the Board of Regents has drawn closer to total Common Core alignment in their exams. When students sit down in June 2014 to take their exams, the English tests will be “officially” lined up with Common Core standards (2015 for the Math standards) —a change that has been happening gradually for the past two years. The biggest changes will come from other tests and in-class assessments that teachers give to their classes, not necessarily from the Regents.

The Common Core NYC | Does My NYC Kid Have to Retake the Regents Exam?

For students who have to take the Regents to graduate, they must achieve a passing grade on each Regents Exam. Most students are required to pass five Regents exams to graduate, although some high schools have alternative systems. This means that teens take one or two Regents each year, and the type of test depends on which classes the high school require students to take. Regardless of the Common Core standards and their effect on the Regents, your kid will have to retake the exams if he or she does not attain this passing score.

For the English Regents exam, students who entered ninth grade before the 2013-2014 school year may keep their score from an older Regents exam, or they may choose to take the June 2014 (or later) version. Any students who entered ninth grade during the 2013-2014 school year or after 2014 will need to take the June 2014 (or later) version of the exam, whichever is offered during their junior year of high school.

For the Math exam, things work a bit differently. Any student who starts a Regents-level math course (like algebra, geometry, etc.) during the 2013-14 school year or afterward, regardless of his or her grade level, must take the most recent Regents exam. If a student started a Regents-level course before the 2013-2014 school year, he or she can keep a score from the earlier Regents exam.

The Common Core NYC | What Will Change on ELA Assessments and Exams in NYC Schools?

Just like the Regents, many of the ELA assessments have already shifted to the Common Core standards. 3rd-8th grade ELA assessments aligned with the standards in 2013, and upper-school exams started shifting in 2013 as well, with full compliance with the Common Core expected by 2015. Again, this means that your child may not necessarily be taking a new test! Rather than worry about whether their child will take the recently revised assessments or the versions appearing next year, parents may be better off focusing on whether their children are meeting ELA standards.

The new ELA/literacy standards cover basic literacy building blocks like reading, writing, and grammar, but they also aim to expand students’ abilities to read and interpret text. This last learning goal is something that is not emphasized well in many schools: teachers want students to understand what a text says, or to answer questions about the text, rather than emphasize learning what a text means, especially when placed in its larger context. This new push for greater understanding of material will mean a conceptual shift in exam content: imagine fewer questions with an obvious “right” answer, and a larger number of more ambiguous questions that require more thought.

The goal of the Common Core is to teach new ways to approach and consider problems and questions, not just to teach students to spit out an easy answer. Obviously, students would much rather have tests with easy answers, but that is not the best way to foster learning. What this may mean is less effective “teaching to the test” measures. Since teachers will have to prepare kids for more open-ended or ambiguous question and answer sets, it’ll be tough to find the right “formula” for success, since each test will depend on students thinking carefully about what passages mean.

In addition to intensive focus on reading passages, both fiction and non-fiction, there will be an emphasis on the mechanics of literacy. Students will need to know age-appropriate vocabulary, but this does not mean getting SAT flashcards and spending hours studying the meanings of useless words. Just like the new SAT’s goal of replacing obscure vocabulary with challenging but important words, the ELA assessments will test understanding of vocabulary in passages, but these age-appropriate words will be important later in high school, college, and beyond. Students will also need to develop the ability to not only understand texts, but to also single out evidence from texts that backs up their claims. This will be especially important when students see paired passages: the ability to find arguments in one text but not the other, or to read two opposing arguments, will be a crucial skill.

For a more detailed list of the changes on the ELA assessments, check out EngageNYC’s explanation.

The Common Core NYC | What Will Change on Math Assessments and Exams in NYC Schools?

Just like the ELA assessments, the 3rd-8th grade math assessments shifted in 2013, and upper-school exams started shifting in 2013 as well, with full compliance with the Common Core expected by 2015. One of the changes that should make families happy is that the focus of these math assessments will be tighter: students won’t be tested on every single one of the standards, it’s the priority standards that are crucial. Testing kids on these foundation skills, instead of a lot of less important concepts, will make sure that kids have the right foundation to move on.

With this focus on priority standards, the tests will ideally be able to measure understanding and the link from grasping a concept to using it in a problem, instead of testing how many math facts a kid had to memorize. Students will also not be allowed to use a calculator until their assessments in 6th grade: for 3rd-5th grade, the emphasis is on understanding ideas, not testing kids on whether or not they can make a calculator work properly.

Finally, there is a shift from memorizing one set way to do a problem to a more fluid application of ideas. The Common Core standards want to teach kids how to approach problems that they haven’t seen before, not just repeat what they’ve done in school. This may mean learning to set up models to solve a problem, brainstorming ways to think about a challenging question, and similar strategies, not to just following a formula.

For a more detailed list of the changes on the ELA assessments, check out EngageNYC’s explanation.

The Common Core NYC | What Is PARCC, and How Is It Related to Common Core?

PARCC stands for “The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers,” and it refers to a group of US states (including NY) that are developing assessments to measure whether students are on track to be successful in college and their careers. This is a very similar goal to that of the Common Core, and one of the main differences is that the PARCC-developed Math and ELA exams are all computer-based.

The goal of the PARCC assessments is to create tests that are useful for teachers, parents, and students, and not just in the short-term. These tests will identify weak spots in a kid’s foundation, and then families and teachers will have plenty of time to react to these problem areas. The PARCC assessments will consist of a series of tests for each subject, so students can measure their progress during the year and find out whether they’re mastering the central standards for ELA and math areas. Ideally, this will give everyone ample time to build up weak skills before moving up to a higher grade, where these learning gaps could get even worse. These assessments will matter less for individuals scores, so they’re not quite like the Regents, where all a kid needs to do is pass. The goal of the PARCC exams is to give teachers, schools, and families a snapshot of kids’ progress over time, which is much more important than one score on one assessment.

The PARCC assessments are fully compliant with the Common Core standards in math and ELA/literacy, so their eventual adoption by Common Core states will give people a way to measure and compare statewide learning. That kind of data just isn’t possible now, since there are so many state-specific exams, and the information we get from PARCC will be a great resource in the coming years.

For a great NPR piece from a reporter who took a PARCC test for young students, go to NPR to hear his story.

The Common Core NYC| Will There Be More Standardized Testing with the Common Core?

There’s a huge uproar in NYC about the new Common Core exams, and it’s a little premature. We do not know whether students will take more assessments under the Common Core, just because test-making companies aren’t finished making their new exams! We’ll have to wait and see whether testing will increase, but there is nothing in the Common Core that explicitly wants more tests: the focus is on better test questions, structure, and format, not on simply having more tests.

For a Common Core myth debunker, check out this article on seven common misunderstandings at WUNC.

The Common Core NYC| What If My Kid Bombed the First Common Core Exam?

Scores on the new math and ELA exams in NYC were nearly 30% lower than usual this year, which is why there’s been so much outrage over the tests. The low scores are mainly due to the brand-new material on the test, and how different the format is from what most kids have gotten used to on older tests.

Cecilia Rudzitis, an educator and curriculum writer for the Common Core Math material, shared her feelings with Origins Tutoring about the assessments. “The US lags behind other countries in terms of mathematical achievement, so we’ve created the Common Core standards to match those of highly successful countries. This is a challenge, as many of our children haven’t been exposed to this kind of learning before, but it’s a challenge they will certainly reach. It will take time and patience on the part of teachers, parents, and students, but it’s a worthy goal.” She also added that in NYC, where many teachers’ compensation is based on test performance, it’s a little unreasonable to hold teachers accountable for strong performance in the early years of Common Core assessments.

The complaints about the level of difficulty of the standards come from parents and teachers everywhere, so be certain that it’s not just your kid who had a hard time! Middle schools and high schools know that everyone is adjusting to the new standards, so they’ll take this 30% score decrease into account during admissions time. There’s no way to fix the increased difficulty right now, since schools and teachers need to fully implement and adjust to the standards in order to teach them properly. Once this happens in the coming years, students will get used to the format and material they see on the assessments, and scores will pick up again.

The Common Core NYC| How Do I Help My Kid With the Common Core Standards?

If you want to help your kid adjust faster to the Common Core change, take a closer look at the standards themselves. Since much of the focus on the ELA/literacy standards is increased reading comprehension and textual analysis, building these skills at home might be a good way to get your kid used to close reading and interpreting texts. The math standards emphasize problem-solving strategies and mastery of important skills, so even something like a little mental math with food prices in the grocery store, or word problems on the way to school, could help your kid start thinking about math outside of the classroom.

There are plenty of other ways for you to help your child be better prepared for the Common Core standards. First, make sure you know what the Common Core is! For NYC-specific Common Core resources, look that the tools collected by EngageNY. For free worksheets and practice problems, Achieve the Core has great resources. The bottom line is that this change will help US kids learn more useful skills that they’ll use in college and beyond. Instead of stressing over one test in middle school, try to keep it in perspective: the new curricula will prepare your kid for undergraduate study and for a career.