Common Core a part of new year

Despite a bitter legal and political fight over test plans, public school students statewide are starting the academic year with the Common Core standards firmly entrenched in classrooms, educators said.

“It is the standards that the state has given us,” said Central Community Superintendent Michael Faulk, a comment echoed by superintendents, school board members and teachers statewide.

“It is what we have,” said Patrice Pujol, superintendent of the Ascension Parish school system and former president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

Public schools for about 700,000 students statewide will be back in full swing this week after months of controversy over Common Core and what exams will be used to see what they know.

Lawsuits for and against the overhaul are pending in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, and hearings are scheduled for Aug. 12, Aug. 15 and Aug. 18.

The key dispute is what standardized tests will be given to students in the spring.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and state Superintendent of Education John White contend that the choice of exams is up to BESE, and they want a judge to rule that way.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and his allies are trying to derail BESE’s plans to use tests aligned to Common Core and crafted by a consortium of states and want a judge to say that.

The legal fight means that students, teachers and parents are starting classes without a key cog in plans for the school year — what are the tests that help shape promotions, public school letter grades and all-important teacher job evaluations?

“If people are given some definitive information about what that assessment is going to be it will release a lot of the teacher tension,” said Debbie Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals and a former teacher herself.

White, in a written message to superintendents earlier this week, said those answers will be provided by Aug. 31.

He noted that state law requires assessments this school year linked to nationally recognized content standards.

“In keeping with this legal mandate, 2014-15 test questions will be aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English and math,” White wrote.

The new academic goals in reading, writing and math have set off a national debate, including heated arguments in Louisiana for the past year.

Backers say they will improve student achievement by offering more depth to key topics, and in some cases they will be presented a grade earlier than in the past.

How schools meet the standards, they say, is up to local officials who choose the curriculum.

Critics contend the standards are top heavy with federal influence, drive the curriculum and often include inappropriate materials.

Yet while test questions continue Common Core is here to stay, superintendents said.

“From my perspective, we are going to continue to teach the standards,” said Hollis Milton, superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish school district.

Scott Devillier, superintendent of the top-rated Zachary school system, said Common Core standards have been meshed with the district’s previous academic goals.

“When it comes to Common Core those standards are higher standards, and we are about higher standards,” Devillier said.

School Board members, teachers and others have made similar comments: that the Common Core academic goals are well in place after four years of planning.

School leaders have taken pains to reassure students and parents that, despite the test controversy, public school operations will be business as usual.

“The arguments will continue but we don’t have any option but to continue to absolutely deliver strong instruction to our kids from day one,” said Pujol, whose district started classes on Aug. 6.

Kate Shanks, a former Baton Rouge resident and mother of three in Lake Charles, said Common Core is confusing and goes too far.

“They are using the standards to write curriculum,” Shanks said. “It is so specific it is telling you how you have to teach it.”

Nikki Dangerfield of Baton Rouge, who has three children in public schools and one in college, said she backs Common Core but is bothered by the lack of any decision on tests.

“How are they going to know what areas to focus on so these kids can be successful on the test,” Dangerfield said. “I mean that is not fair to the teachers or to the children.”

The uncertainty about the exams is especially troubling for new teachers knowing that the results are linked to their job evaluations, Schum said.

“It would be a great concern if they are moving forward with Common Core and a higher standard and the assessment doesn’t match,” she said. “The big question is that assessment.”

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