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FAQ: What are the Common Core State Standards?

From left, Kristin Womack, Pradeep Sharma, Maria Armaganian and Sam Nichol play parts in a game their fifth grade teacher Mary Wilke devised to explain place values in their math class at Broken Ground School in Concord on Friday, September 13, 2013. 

(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

From left, Kristin Womack, Pradeep Sharma, Maria Armaganian and Sam Nichol play parts in a game their fifth grade teacher Mary Wilke devised to explain place values in their math class at Broken Ground School in Concord on Friday, September 13, 2013. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

All of the information in these frequently asked questions is from the state and federal departments of education and interviews with educators and activists.

What are the Common Core State Standards?

The Common Core is a new set of English language arts and math standards for students in grades K-12 that has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with input from teachers, administrators, parents and education experts. Alongside the Common Core, New Hampshire developed its own College- and Career-Ready Standards, which set new standards for science, social studies, technology, early learning, arts, career development and physical education.

What is the purpose of Common Core?

One is to raise the level of learning among students in the United States so they can better compete with their peers on an international stage. The “common” set of standards are also aimed at ensuring no matter what school a student graduates from, in any Common Core-aligned state, they are entering college and careers with the same base of knowledge.

So what’s changing in English and math?

In math, teachers will cover fewer subjects but in greater depth. In language arts and writing, students will read more nonfiction and informational texts and write with a greater focus on critical analysis. Teachers from science, social studies and other subjects are expected to contribute by increasing reading in their own classrooms.

Is Common Core mandated?

No. The State Board of Education voted to adopt the standards in 2010, and local school districts are not being forced to change their curricula. Every district in the state, however, will have to adopt the same new test.

Does that mean every school has to follow the same curriculum?

No. Districts aren’t mandated to buy certain course materials or teach lessons in a certain way. High school English students in Concord could read an entirely different set of texts than their peers in Hopkinton, but by the end of the grade level, they’ll all be expected to demonstrate the same reading comprehension and writing skills. Administrators in Concord, Merrimack Valley, Bow, Hopkinton and Pembroke all said they still feel they have local control over what’s happening their classrooms.

What is the new test?

This October will be the last time students in New Hampshire take the New England Common Assessment Program tests, better known as NECAP. Starting in the spring of 2015, students will take the Smarter Balanced Assessment, a computer-based test that is designed to give greater insight into a student’s level of understanding. With the NECAP tests, students were labeled proficient or not. But Smarter Balanced will adapt questions based on how well the student is doing, meaning a fifth-grade student could, for example, demonstrate that she can do math up to a seventh-grade level.

How will we use the results of the new test?

Schools will use the assessments to evaluate how their students are doing and what, if anything, needs to change in the classroom. On a state level, the Department of Education will use the results to determine which schools in the state are struggling and need interventions. Schools with the lowest 5 percent of aggregate scores will be labeled “priority” schools. The next 10 percent of schools that show the largest gaps in scores between subgroups of students, such as English-language learners or students with disabilities, will be labeled “focus” schools.

Will the switch to Common Core cost additional money?

It’s hard to tell. For districts that spend money annually on teacher training and new materials, the additional costs of Common Core are likely to be minimal. But beyond purchasing materials, some districts will have to upgrade their technology in order to support the Smarter Balanced test. The state Department of Education is in the process of surveying school districts to identify what each school will need to be ready for the new test. For the first two years of the test, districts that don’t have the technology can give the test in pencil-and-paper format.

How is this different than No Child Left Behind?

No Child Left Behind is a federal law that set a goal of 100 percent of students being proficient in grade-level reading and math by 2014. But as that deadline approached and some schools failed to meet the benchmark, those schools were hit with increasing sanctions. In 2011, the federal Department of Education began offering “waivers” for certain provisions from No Child Left Behind. If states could demonstrate they had their own accountability and performance systems in place, they could be waived from following the law.

New Hampshire received its waiver earlier this year. Under that waiver, the lowest 15 percent of schools in achievement, deemed “priority” and “focus” schools, will receive extra attention from the state Department of Education. Test scores from Smarter Balanced, based on Common Core standards, will be used in part to determine which schools are in the bottom 15 percent. The state-driven Common Core is not exactly a replacement for the federal No Child Left Behind program, but it is the next step in education reform efforts.

Why are some people against the Common Core?

There are a lot of reasons, explains Ann Marie Banfield, education liaison for Cornerstone Action, a New Hampshire group that opposes the standards. She and others believe the standards aren’t rigorous enough, especially in math, where she says the standards actually put U.S. students two years behind their peers internationally. Some critics also say despite the claim that Common Core was a state-driven effort, the federal government is coercing states and districts into adopting them by hinging federal money on whether schools implement the standards.

The state’s argument that districts have a choice about whether to adopt Common Core is also false, critics say, because every district is required to give the Smarter Balanced test. Since the “priority” and “focus” school designations under the waiver are based in part on Smarter Balanced scores, schools and districts could face sanctions if they fail to adopt Common Core, Banfield said. A truly voluntary model would be one where the government creates a set of model standards but ties no money or sanctions to districts’ and states’ decisions to adopt them, she said.

Cornerstone and New Hampshire’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity will host a Common Core forum Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester.

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