The success of the Common Core standards depends on how effectively they engage students. Yet the issue of how students are responding to the standards has generally received far less attention – from researchers, policy analysts and the media – than other issues such as teacher preparation, the new Smarter Balanced assessments and the adequacy of curriculum material.
EdSource Today interviewed seven students who will be seniors in the 2015-16 school year to get their impressions of the standards. We focused in particular on their views of the Smarter Balanced assessments that they had just finished taking at the time.
The students came from six school districts and a leading charter school system that EdSource Today is tracking as a regular feature of our Common Core coverage. We chose them with help from officials at the largest school in each of the districts – Elk Grove, San Jose, Fresno, Visalia, Garden Grove and Santa Ana unified school districts – and from the Aspire Public Schools system, which comprises 35 schools in California.
These students’ perspectives are not intended to be representative in any way of California’s over 6 million public school students, but rather as a window into this still relatively unexplored dimension of Common Core implementation.
Only two of the students said they noticed much of a difference in their classrooms. The other five felt that very little, if anything, had changed beyond the online Smarter Balanced tests that they took for the first time this spring. Students all had mostly minor complaints about the tests, pertaining to small technical problems or in two cases their wish that they could have spent the time studying for their final exams.
EdSource is committed to expanding our coverage of student voices, which all too often are muffled or absent in reporting on major educational changes that affect them. If you’re a student and want to share your impressions of the Common Core and the assessments aligned with them, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Garden Grove High School, Garden Grove Unified
Melissa Ancheta said that her intense academic load of four Advanced Placement classes last year prepared her well for the Smarter Balanced assessments.
Particularly in her English language arts and composition class, she had ample opportunities to practice argumentative writing, which involves finding sources and evidence to support arguments and coming up with thesis statements – skills required by the test.
But Ancheta said she worried that other classmates may not have received the same level of preparation.
As editor of the Argolog, her school newspaper, she interviewed teachers and students about their views on the Common Core standards, finding out how teachers are instructing differently and what changes students are noticing.
“This is all a new experience for us,” said Ancheta, who is also co-president of the Academic Decathlon team. She said the interviews she conducted in doing her reporting for the paper suggested teachers still needed more time to understand the standards and integrate them in to their teaching. Reactions from students were mixed – with some acknowledging that the new strategies had improved their academic skills, and others thinking that it had actually made things worse.
“In terms of seeing Common Core implemented in my math class, it isn’t effective because I still don’t understand math, and there’s more pressure to understand it which just makes me stress and that’s counterproductive,” said junior Aida Dorantes.
Regarding the Smarter Balanced assessments, Ancheta said she found the math portion of the test to be more difficult than the English section, as it included several questions on algebra and geometry, subjects she completed in the 8th and 9th grades.
In addition, she said, the new assessment were more difficult than the previous California Standards Tests she had taken previously.
“I felt like the other standardized tests focused on common sense (knowledge),” Melissa said, rather than assessing what she had learned in class.
“I believe, over the years, the teachers will get better at (teaching Common Core standards). So far, I haven’t heard much discontent from students taught by the Common Core standards,” Ancheta said.
Leland High School, San Jose Unified School District
Arushi Desai feels that so far at least the Common Core State Standards haven’t significantly changed much of what or how she learns at her school. “I don’t think they’re having the impact they could have,” she said.
One reason is that she is taking mostly Advanced Placement classes and so hasn’t been exposed much to classroom instruction aligned with the Common Core.
The main difference she noted last year was that her AP English teacher increased the amount of time the class spent discussing more current topics, such as modern-day racism and hybrid-vehicle technology. “That has been a good change,” she said.
Desai said that another change for the better was the increased use of computers at school, particularly on the standardized tests. “This is something that will help prepare us for college and beyond, I think,” she said.
During the school year, Desai participated in speech and debate tournaments, the national honor society, and an Indian dance group. This fall, she’ll also serve as the senior class president.
Her main objection to the standardized assessments she took in June was that they took away time – nearly seven hours – that students might have used to study for their final exams, particularly in her challenging AP classes. “We have a lot of high-achieving students in this school, and we all found that annoying,” she said.
No students in Desai’s classes “opted out” of the Smarter Balanced assessments, but she thinks that many would have done so had they known that they could.
“Quite a lot of us would have liked to have used that time to study,” she said. As it was, many of her fellow students simply raced through the assessments, Desai said, without taking them seriously because they felt how they did on them didn’t matter. That the assessments were given on laptops rather than by pencil and paper or even on desktop computers also made them seem less serious, she said.
She even noticed some students nodding off while they were taking the assessments.
Franklin High School, Elk Grove Unified
Kristian Guevarra said he likes school so much that even midway through the summer, he was looking forward to going back.
“I like the rigorous challenges and meeting new people,” he said.
Even so, Guevarra appeared unimpressed by the challenges presented by the Common Core State Standards. He said he had heard the phrase “Common Core,” but still wasn’t sure what it meant. After he heard the standards explained, he said “to be honest, I don’t think there’s been much of a change.”
Questioned further, however, he said he had noticed that his teachers had been assigning students to work more collaboratively on projects, rather than teaching mostly by lecturing. Working in groups with other students last year “gave me a new perspective,” he said. “It’s not the same as listening to a voice for an hour and 40 minutes.”
In U.S. history, his favorite subject, Guevarra said he enjoyed working with one other student on a presentation about the O.J. Simpson trial. “We had to meet each other after school to work on it, which was new for me, but it was fun,” he said.
During his junior year, Guevarra worked on his high school yearbook, interviewing fellow students about their favorite activities. After graduating, he said, he plans to attend the nearby two-year Consumnes River College, where he wants to study information technology. He’s interested in becoming a firefighter.
Asked what he thought of the Smarter Balanced assessments, Guevarra said he thought they took too long to take. The math portion, in particular, “was very long, tiring and repetitive,” he said.
Redwood High School, Visalia Unified School District
For as long as she can remember, Taryn Loverin has wanted to be a teacher. This year, as her school implemented the Common Core State Standards, she said she got a front-row perspective on just how challenging that profession can be as she watched her teachers struggle to adapt to the new reforms.
“They’re still getting used to them and trying to figure out the best way to teach them,” she said in an interview shortly before school let out for summer vacation. “They talk to us about that, and sometimes they sound a little frustrated.”
Perhaps at least in part due to that learning curve, Loverin surmised, she hadn’t noticed any major changes in the style of instruction in her school as a result of the new standards. The main differences she noted were that teachers were encouraging more teamwork in class and administering “a lot more tests.” Students took “two or three” practice tests in their English language arts class to prepare for the online assessments, which Loverin said nonetheless ended up taking much longer than expected. She said the English tests alone took up to five hours stretching over one week, while the math tests took two days.
“It wasn’t so much that they were harder, but everything took longer,” she said of the tests. For instance, she explained, in one part of the test, students had to scroll through texts and highlight parts of them. In another, they needed to listen to an audiotape and then answer questions that required them to remember what they had heard. That did have the advantage that they could play the tape over as many times as they wanted, she said.
When she’s not studying, Loverin writes about sports and clubs for her school’s online news service, the Redwood Gigantea. Earlier this month, the Gigantea ran a story with the dramatic headline: “Common Core Horror.” The article, since removed from the website, echoed Loverin’s contention that “students would rather be studying for finals instead of spending so much time on Common Core.”
Aspire California Preparatory Academy, Berkeley
Aimee Magaña found her school’s transition to the Common Core State Standards last year to be anti-climactic. “I honestly can’t think of one thing that was different, except for the tests,” she said.
Magaña served as a member of the student council as a junior and is interested in studying architecture. She said her teachers hadn’t talked to students about the transition to the Common Core, except in the context of preparing them for the standardized assessments, which they took in early May. “They said the tests were going to be on computers, and we were the first students to take the tests this way, and not to be scared because we know all this stuff already,” she said.
Magaña’s school in Berkeley is a part of the Aspire Public Schools system, which had already incorporated some approaches encouraged by the Common Core before most California school districts began to implement the new standards. Aspire students, for instance, are accustomed to frequently working in teams on projects, including a major project at the end of every school year. This year, Magaña said, she studied “civic engagement,” in part by researching, visiting and presenting a project about an urban farm.
Magaña agreed with her teachers that her classwork during the year had prepared her for the Smarter Balanced assessments, but she was nevertheless apprehensive about taking the tests online rather than on paper. She said she found it particularly difficult not to be able to work out the math problems on a paper (as opposed to a virtual) scratch pad, as she had during previous tests. But she said the test’s highlighting tool, which allows students to click on words or sentences they want to keep in mind, was “super-helpful.”
Magaña said she felt sufficiently confident about her performance on the test to check the box allowing her scores to be sent to colleges to which she may apply. “It’s important for them to see where I’m at,” she said. Her school has prepared her well for college, she added, and she was looking forward to sending out applications in the fall. “I’m just really ready to start my career,” Magaña said.
Bullard High School, Fresno Unified School District
Kyle Pittman kept busy all year, doing schoolwork, sports and contributing to his school’s news website, The Charger Online. He was determined to follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers, both of whom are attending college – and he said he believed the new Common Core State Standards could help prepare him to succeed once he does.
“My brothers have told me that college actually requires a lot of writing and explaining yourself instead of just handing in an answer – and that’s what we’re getting more of right now,” Pittman said. “I feel like when the Common Core wasn’t in play, students were content with just ‘I got this right or wrong,’ and that was the end of it. Now we have to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get this right or wrong?’” In this way, Pittman said, the new standards “are allowing us to expand our knowledge.”
Together with more than 3 million other California students, Pittman was a pioneer last spring in taking new Smarter Balanced tests, known as the California Assessments of Student Performance and Progress. For most of those students, who’d previously taken standardized tests with pen and paper, marking bubbles to answer multiple-choice questions, the transition included adapting to laptops, tablets or computers. Pittman and his peers used tablets.
In the process, Pittman said he encountered a few technical snafus. Sometimes, for instance, the option to click on an online dictionary or calculator wouldn’t work, he said. “So you’d be saying, ‘What do I do now?'” Pittman said. “But if you came back to it later, it would work.”
Pittman said he also had some trouble drawing graphs on the tablets: “You’d put the pointer down but it would move over to where you didn’t want it.”
Apart from these minor problems, Pittman said he thought the tests, which took him roughly three hours to complete, were an improvement over previous standardized assessments. He appreciated the fact that unlike paper-and-pencil tests, the online tests offered more or less difficult questions depending on how he answered the previous ones. That way, he got real-time feedback on how he was doing. “They really give you useful information about where you’re at, and what you have to go back and improve,” he said.
Century High School, Santa Ana Unified
Ruben Triscareño, whose first language is Spanish, said he had an easier time with the English language arts section than the math section of the Smarter Balanced assessments he took in May.
Part of this he ascribed to being more prepared. He said his English teacher made students take practice tests for two days, while his math teacher provided no such preparation.
Triscareño said he also found that the English portions of the assessments emphasized what he had been learning in class during the year. He worried that the math section included questions on geometry – a subject he took as a freshman.
“You tend to forget the concepts you learned,” he said.
Triscareño said he preferred the Smarter Balanced assessments over the California Standards Tests, which he had taken in previous years, if only for one reason: his hand used to hurt after filling in all those bubbles with his pencil.
Triscareño, who plans to go to college and study medicine, said he had noticed some changes in the way teachers at his school have been running their classrooms during the past two years, though he hadn’t realized it was due to the Common Core. For instance, instead of relying on textbooks, teachers had students do more hands-on activities and prepare PowerPoint presentations on what they had learned.
“I think the new teaching methods are better,” Triscareño said, adding that the new approach was more suited to his style of learning. “I’m more of a hands-on learner than a visual learner,” he said.