Common Core now the common element in college-preparatory courses
April 23, 2014 | By Michelle Maitre | 4 Comments
Updated April 24 with additional information. Lesson plans and teacher training programs at the K-12 level aren’t the only things being updated to reflect the new Common Core State Standards.
The requirements of the battery of courses – called “a-g” – that students must take to be eligible for California public university admission have also been revised to reflect the new standards.
The change is a reflection of the robustness of the Common Core, educators said, and also heralds a stronger correlation between what’s being taught at California schools and what colleges want students to know.
“It’s very heartening and as far as I know unprecedented,” said Michael Kirst, a retired Stanford University education professor who serves as president of the State Board of Education.
In setting the guidelines for what constituted a “college preparatory” course, the state’s public universities sometimes highlighted different standards than those required at the K-12 level, which led to a disconnect between the two systems.
But aligning the requirements of the a-g courses to the Common Core will provide more commonality between the systems and give districts clarity as they create courses based on the new standards. Common Core, adopted by California and 44 other states, lays out guidelines for skills students need in math and English.
“For the first time in decades, a-g is aligned with the standards of the state in a nice, coherent way,” said Bill Jacob, president of the University of California Academic Senate, whose Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools committee helps develop the criteria for the a-g courses.
The change is also an acknowledgement of the strength of the Common Core standards, Jacob said. The standards, which identify preparing students for college and careers as a main goal, have been praised as stressing hands-on learning, problem solving and critical thinking skills to a deeper extent than past California state standards.
Many of the Common Core standards mirror the skills the college segments outlined as necessary for students in a series of “competency statements” published in past years, Jacob said. Those competency papers were created jointly by members of the Academic Senates of the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges and were intended as guides to the abilities students need to succeed in college.
“Common Core really is a lot closer to what was the vision” for student preparedness, Jacob said.
Shortly after the state adopted Common Core in 2010, university officials began revising the criteria of courses that would be accepted as satisfying the a-g requirements. In order to be considered for freshman admission to UC or CSU, students must complete 15 college-preparatory courses in subject areas including math, English, history, laboratory science and visual arts. The courses are called “a-g” because each letter stands for a subject area – history is “a,” for instance, while English is “b.”
High schools develop the curriculum for the classes they’ll offer, but the course descriptions must be evaluated and approved by UC for the class to count for a-g credit.
“We want schools to focus on those big ideas that teach habits of mind and the overarching skills (students need for college) and not just treat the standards as a check-off list,” Jacob said.
The science requirement has undergone a similar revision, Jacob said, asking schools to show how courses reflect the Next Generation Science Standards, which – like Common Core – call for deeper scientific thinking and analysis than previous standards. The updated science requirements will be posted online in coming weeks.
Campuses are now working to revise their course descriptions for review by UC’s Sept. 15 deadline.
Update: “We anticipate a flood of new course approvals or old course re-approvals,” Jacob said. “We might not even be able to review them in the usual timeframe.”
“But nobody should worry,” Jacob added. “Until courses get re-reviewed, nobody is going to lose their a-g certification.”
Schools may also resubmit their courses for additional review if they are rejected by UC.
Reviewing the courses is a significant undertaking for UC, which last year reviewed 23,150 new course submissions and course revisions, according to figures provided by the UC Office of the President.
In this current cycle, the university had received 1,907 new course submissions, across all subject areas, by April 5.
College ‘seal of approval’
For two of the state’s largest school districts, Los Angeles and Fresno unified, the biggest change has been in reworking math courses to meet Common Core – not specifically because of UC’s requirements, but because the standards changed so dramatically, officials there said.
“The new Common Core State Standards framework is drastically different than what the old framework was,” said Nader Delnavaz, director of college and career education for Los Angeles Unified. “It’s not because the mathematics is different, but it’s the grouping of mathematical domains and ideas and the in-depthness of the materials. Because of that it was very necessary and natural to change (the) courses.”
The Los Angeles district submitted course descriptions for about 10 high school math courses for a-g approval, Delnavaz said. The district will go through a similar process for its science courses.
Fresno Unified reworked high school courses in algebra I and II and geometry and will resubmit the new class descriptions for a-g approval, said Val Hogwood, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.
The new course alignment has made it easier to match what students are learning in the classroom to the skills colleges are looking for, she said.
“When we get a-g credit,” Hogwood said, “it’s kind of putting the seal of approval that these courses are what’s going to prepare kids.”
Kirst, the state board president, said the alignment to Common Core is a signal of a greater level of alignment between K-12 and post-secondary institutions. Other changes include revamped SAT and ACT exams, which also will more closely align with the Common Core.
“I’m quite confident it will be closer together,” Kirst said. “We’ve turned a corner and established some relationships now.”
Michelle Maitre covers career and college readiness. Contact her and follow her on Twitter @michelle_maitre. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.