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New school year, new curriculum for Hendry County schools

HENDRY COUNTY—The new school year is just around the corner and Hendry County students can anticipate some big changes to their curriculum this year. In 2010, Florida was one of 45 states to sign on to the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). These educational standards attempt to define what students need to know at each grade level and use concepts designed specifically to prepare students for college and career, according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative -- the governing body behind the standards, coordinated by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. One important aspect of the CCSS is the integration of writing and critical thinking into each subject area, starting in the early grades. The state of Florida began implementing the standards in 2011 with Kindergarten, continuing with first and second grade in 2012. This year, third through 12th grade will see certain aspects of the CCSS infused into their curriculum, including the end-of-year exams, with full implementation expected for the 2014/2015 school year.

Superintendent Paul Puletti explained the basics behind the new state standards and what students, teachers and parents can expect throughout the new school year.

“Basically, the Common Core Standards are a framework where instruction is infused with reading and writing in all grade levels and subject areas. There is more reading and writing in math and social studies, not just in English and language arts,” said Superintendent Puletti.

More opportunity for reading and writing will be the biggest difference students see when the new standards are implemented, according to Superintendent Puletti. Students will feel the biggest impact from the CCSS, however, teachers have been and will be impacted.

Some teachers have already taken training courses to prepare themselves for the new standards, and others will receive training in the near future.

Because the CCSS define what students need to know at each grade level, teachers will have to “work cooperatively across all grade levels and subject areas,” said Superintendent Puletti. Teachers will also be more involved in developing students’ everyday curriculum. As Superintendent Puletti explained, the CCSS “tell us what students need to know,” but the “how to do it” is still a local decision that the schools and the school district will make on their own.

Principal Rosa Perez, who will be moving from Clewiston Middle School to Central Elementary School this year, explained how the CCSS will impact teachers’ everyday lessons.

The CCSS increases the amount that students will be writing, as well as the amount of informational texts students will read, she explained. One of the core aspects of the CCSS, especially beginning at the elementary school level, is helping students to develop a deep understanding of what they are reading.

Principal Perez outlined a possible scenario between a teacher and her students to explain how the CCSS work to develop students’ critical thinking skills.

A teacher may present students with an article or short story and give the students ways to mark the text, said Principal Perez. By doing this, she explained, the students begin to develop a deeper understanding of what they are reading. The students will then read the text again, two or three times, helping to build their vocabulary. Once the students have read the text multiple times, they will go back and cite evidence in order to write a response, said Principal Perez.

A second scenario may include a teacher posing a question to her students and having them read a text in order to gain a deeper understanding of how to answer her question, said Principal Perez.

The CCSS will require students to use these same critical thinking and writing skills in math, as well as science and social studies. In math, Principal Perez explained, students will concentrate more on mathematical skills and how to use them, as opposed to merely memorizing equations and concepts. In the same way students are fluent in the English language, so, too, will they become fluent in mathematics, she explained.

Mathematics, under the new CCSS, will be centered around application, as well. According to Principal Perez, the question will be, “How do you use math in the real world?”

“There will be a bigger shift in math this year. Students will gain a deeper understanding so they can apply those concepts to the real world,” said Principal Perez.

On their website, the Common Core State Standards Initiative detailed what a “mathematically proficient student” should know as part of the CCSS:

“Mathematically proficient students can explain correspondences between equations, verbal descriptions, tables and graphs, or draw diagrams of important features and relationships, graph data and search for regularity or trends. Younger students might rely on using concrete objects or pictures to help conceptualize and solve a problem. Mathematically proficient students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, ‘Does this make sense?’”

The same kinds of parameters created for math, were also created for English language arts, science, history and social sciences.

Because the CCSS delineate specifically what each student should know, and 45 states have signed on to the standards, children who transfer to a different school will, theoretically, be learning the same curriculum at the new school, so long as the school has adopted the CCSS. This also means educators can compare test results from state to state.

Principal Perez and Superintendent Puletti both praised these features.

“We can now see where our students are in Florida compared to other states,” said Principal Perez, who said the FCAT could only compare students within Florida.

Superintendent Puletti pointed out the advantage of the CCSS for families who move from state to state.

“If you have a military family who might be moving from Texas to Florida to Maryland -- to wherever -- there will be a standard curriculum,” said Superintendent Puletti.

One disadvantage Principal Perez acknowledged was the CCSS’s focus on technology -- technology that some Hendry County schools do not possess. For example, the end-of-year exams that will accompany the CCSS will be almost entirely computer-based. The CCSS’s drive to prepare students for the “real world” also means that everyday classroom instruction will be infused with modern technology -- an expensive prospect that Principal Perez called “the bad side” of the CCSS for some Hendry County schools.

Another potential downside is the continued focus on testing to measure what students have learned. Superintendent Puletti commented on this issue.

“The Common Core Standards do not shy away from testing as a standard. Unfortunately, there are still testing requirements and, in some cases, there is more testing, which I hate to see,” said Superintendent Puletti.

The 2014/15 school year will see the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) being replaced with a new assessment called PARCC, or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Other states have signed onto the assessments, as well, 19 in total plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The PARCC assessments align with the CCSS and include texts that are “worth reading and problems that are worth solving,” according to a fact sheet released by PARCC. A unique aspect of the PARCC assessment is that students will not simply be answering multiple choice questions. Instead, students will be required to show their work when solving math problems, for example.

Until the PARCC exams are completed and ready to be administered, Florida students will be taking the FCAT at the end of the year. However, changes in the FCAT have been taking place, as well.

In the past couple of years, students have seen a phase out of the traditional FCAT and a phase in of the FCAT 2.0. The FCAT 2.0 aligns with the new state standards and sees stricter grading in the area of writing. According to the Florida Department of Education (DOE), the grading rubric for the FCAT 2.0 Writing pays greater attention to the correct use of standard English conventions, which include spelling, capitalization and grammar, and the quality of details, requiring relevant, logical and plausible support. In the past, students have been graded leniently on these points, according to the DOE.

The FCAT 2.0 attempts to bridge the gap between the FCAT and PARCC, but the FCAT 2.0 will again be phased out once the PARCC assessments are written and agreed upon.

Principal Perez explained how her school is preparing for the new tests.

“As a school, we’re preparing to blend the two,” said Principal Perez. Older students should prepare for more reading and responding to informational texts on the FCAT 2.0, said Principal Perez. This includes writing using more sources than students were previously required to use. Students may read a narrative, but use information from a news article to respond to the narrative, she explained.

Amongst all the preparations being taken to transition to the new standards, criticisms of the new assessments have also surfaced. Florida recently threatened to pull out of PARCC because of concerns over the amount of time students will spend testing, whether schools have the computers and bandwidth necessary to take the tests and how much money the tests will cost in the end, according to an article published by State Impact, a reporting project by National Public Radio.

State House Speaker Will Weatherford and state Senate President Don Gaetz both sent a letter to former Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, asking him to withdraw from PARCC. The letter was sent on July 17; Bennett submitted his letter of resignation to the Chairman of Florida’s State Board of Education on August 1.

Despite the recent criticisms, the CCSS are still on track to roll out this school year for third through 12th grade. The accompanying exams, on the other hand, are still a debatable issue.