Schools face new, higher standards

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

While children enjoy rest and relaxation, school districts across Mississippi are using the summer break to prepare for a monumental shift in education.
This fall, the state’s public schools will begin teaching from a new set of standards that will be used by 42 states across the country.
Those standards are designed to increase the nation’s college and career readiness and are often more in-depth than existing state curriculum guides.
“It will be very dramatic,” Tupelo Director of Curriculum Glenda Scott said of the shift. “It will be a drastic change. The level of rigor is really going up in each grade.”
Known as the Common Core State Standards, they were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. States had the option of whether or not they would adopt the new standards.
Mississippi schools will begin using the Common Core this year for kindergarten to second-grade students and will gradually add additional grades over the next three or four years. The plan is for state standardized tests to reflect the new standards possibly during the 2014-15 school year.
Common Core Standards have been released for language arts and for math. There are plans to release standards for science and social studies in the future.
In some ways, the new standards are similar to what Mississippi already teaches. In other ways, they will demand dramatic changes. The consensus seems to be that Mississippi’s language arts standards are much closer to Common Core than its math standards.
The Common Core will require some skills to be taught earlier. For instance, Mississippi now requires that students learn multiplication in third and fourth grades. Under the Common Core, they will need to be introduced to it in second grade.
While the standards contain skills students must learn, local districts will still have flexibility in how they teach those skills.
The Common Core will contain fewer objectives but will go deeper into the skills it does require.
“It will be a lot more in depth and a lot more focused,” said Kathy Mask, chief academic officer for the Lee County School District.
This also will likely change the way schools are evaluated. Although the format of the new standardized test has not been finalized, it likely will be different than it is now, when schools are judged by one state test students take at the end of the year.
Preliminary talk has been on having students tested at the end of each quarter with the results of those four tests being combined to measure schools. Those tests may also be offered via computers, giving schools much quicker access to their scores and the ability to use that immediate data to determine how well students understand the material.
Those tests also may be less about multiple choice and more about projects, multi-step math problems, research and problem-solving.
Not only will schools need to teach the new standards, they’ll also have to make sure students master these skills. Plus, if students will be tested on computers, schools must be sure students know how to use them in early grades.
Kindergarten shift
Educators also say the new standards will reflect a dramatic shift for kindergarten students.
“Kindergarten is not going to be a lot of centers and play time any more,” said Sungja Collins, director of curriculum and instruction for the Itawamba County School District. “It will be a structured curriculum format.”
Kindergartners must learn how to write simple sentences, to count to 100 (they’re now only required to count to 20) and to understand addition and subtraction.
“Where we would take the entire school year to teach the alphabet, we will now teach it before Christmas,” said Lisa Franks, also a chief academic officer for Lee County Schools.
As a result, educators will need more help from parents in having their children prepared for kindergarten. Collins said it would make a big difference if parents could read to their children for 20 minutes every day. The more entering kindergartners know about letters, numbers, speaking and writing, the better.
The new standards also will put pressure on teachers in older grades who must implement the new Common Core over the next few years while also filling in gaps that students may have missed under the previous curriculum.
Making matters more complicated, students will still be tested on the old curriculum until at least 2014-15.
“We know there will be two to three transition years that we really have to make sure we cover any gaps in curriculum,” Mask said. “We will need to do some backtracking in some cases.”
Many school districts have been preparing for the new standards since they were first released last June. They have been busy writing curriculum documents that use the new curriculum.
Tupelo Schools will adopt the new math standards for kindergarten to fifth-grade students next year, while using the new language arts standards in kindergarten to second grade.
Scott said test scores show that the district has been struggling in math, so it was a good time to revamp that curriculum.
Dozens of Tupelo teachers from each grade level have been working this summer to write new curriculum documents that incorporate the Common Core.
The Mississippi Department of Education is also hosting several training sessions for district leaders to take back to local teachers.
“It will be a challenging transition but we are excited about the opportunity it gives us to get together and talk about teaching and learning,” said Tupelo Curriculum Specialist Kenneth Griswold.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.