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School just got tougher: Louisiana raises bar for student testing this spring

JAY SOWERS | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT —Vidalia Junior High School math teacher Dana Williams, right, asks eighth grade student Brehoner Harris to draw a line of best fit on a chart during a pre-algebra class at the school on Friday morning.
JAY SOWERS | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT —Vidalia Junior High School math teacher Dana Williams, right, asks eighth grade student Brehoner Harris to draw a line of best fit on a chart during a pre-algebra class at the school on Friday morning.

VIDALIA — Things are about to get tougher for Concordia Parish school students this spring, but teachers and administrators say the extra effort will be worthwhile.

Louisiana is beginning to align its testing assessment to the more rigorous Common Core State Standards. That means tougher writing and math tests this spring for parish school students.

Previously, a student taking an English language arts test was asked to write an essay on a personal opinion about a subject. The new test will require students to read passages and use facts to support the essay they write.

Through the Common Core State Standards, ELA and mathematics curriculum will be changed in Louisiana, Mississippi and 43 other states with the ultimate goal of setting clear educational standards that states can share and adopt.

The main goal is to determine what students in specific grades should know in all participating states.

Those goals are similar to what Louisiana currently refers to as Grade Level Expectations, or “GLEs.”

Louisiana adopted common core in 2010, and the state education department plans on having all assessments and curriculum aligned with the new state standards in ELA and math by the 2014-2015 school year.

Revised assessments in social studies and science are slated to launch the same year.

But in order to prepare for full implementation, the state education department is including more common-core-aligned content in the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP, and Integrated Louisiana Educational Assessment Programs, or iLEAP, tests for this year and the 2013-2014 school year.

Students in grades 3, 5, 6 and 7 take the iLEAP test, and students in grades 4 and 8 take the LEAP test.

The decision to begin testing students in material they haven’t been exposed to for very long initially left Concordia Parish School District Superintendent Paul Nelson worried that changes were being made too quickly.

“Education is a marathon, not a sprint, and sometimes, at the state level, they’ve taken such an approach to thinking we can turn on a light switch and everything will be different,” Nelson said. “It would have been nice to have some kind of transition, but these are the requirements we’re given, and we have to move forward.”

But with teaching material being provided by the state and some training sessions provided by independent, non-profit organizations, Nelson said he feels confident in his teachers and students.

“There’s a lot of changes going on, but I think we’re certainly doing our best to train our teachers and administrators to be prepared,” Nelson said. “Sometimes I wish we would have done things differently in Louisiana with phasing in things in different steps, but we’re just bracing ourselves for some of those changes as they come.”

Greater depth

Jodee Trant, an eighth-grade ELA teacher at Monterey School, said no longer fears the words “common core” as much as she did last year — and neither do her students.

Trant was just one of 30 teachers from Concordia and Tensas parishes who attended a two-day training session in January and again Thursday and Friday that helped prepare her for the upcoming changes to Louisiana’s educational system.

Along with the training sessions, the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, an independent, non-profit organization, donated $25,000 to provide a year’s worth of materials, training and support for the two school districts.

Those materials, Trant said, have gone a long way in getting her students more comfortable with the common-core material.

“We’ve been slowly integrating this material in the classroom, and we just started practicing with everything,” Trant said. “The kids are getting more and more comfortable with it as we keep learning new things.”

The main difference Trant said she sees in the new material versus the old material is that there is a greater depth into one topic instead of covering multiple topics and only scratching the surface.

“Before, it was kind of more open-ended writing questions where the kids just wrote,” Trant said. “Now, they’re taking a position and defending it using facts from the text.

“There’s greater depth and not just teaching one thing and moving on.”

The math portion of the common-core standards takes a similar approach, requiring students to have the ability to justify why a particular mathematical statement is true or identifying from where a rule comes.

Those standards are something Dana Williams, eighth grade pre-algebra teacher at Vidalia Junior High School, said she agrees students should know.

“I think this is something that needed to happen and will end up helping everyone in the long run,” Williams said. “The problems aren’t necessarily more difficult, but they are different because they go into more depth and require the students to show how they got their answer instead of just getting the answer and moving on.”

But any change to what a student previously has been accustomed to learning will come with some resistance, Williams said.

“They definitely recognize that what they’re doing is different and sometimes a bit harder than last year,” Williams said. “But sometimes they also just use that as an excuse to not show the work, and that’s something they need to be doing to help them understand the problems and not just get an answer.”

Combating that sense of resistance or lack of motivation is something Nelson said he is constantly trying to instill in teachers, administrators and even parents.

“A lot of times when kids look at things that are hard and challenging the first reaction is to quit or skip it, so we have to battle that mindset and motivate them to let them know they can solve the problem,” Nelson said. “It’s like a football team getting off the bus and seeing the other team is bigger and stronger and thinking they’re beat before the kick off.

“If we change some of that mentality with the teachers and parents coming into play helping to encourage them to stay the course and work through it, they’ll overcome anything.”

One step ahead

Across the river in Mississippi, Natchez-Adams School District students will not see any common-core material on their state tests this year, but some students are already learning the material in the classroom.

Mississippi adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010 with the goal of being fully implemented in kindergarten through 12th grade in ELA and math by the 2014-2015 school year.

Elementary school students, specifically those in kindergarten through third grade, are already learning common-core material in Natchez schools.

While students in higher grades across the state might not see common-core material in their classrooms for another year, NASD Superintendent Frederick Hill said he wanted to make sure as many students were exposed to the material before the required full implantation.

“We’re not going to wait until it becomes mandatory to start teaching our students this material,” Hill said. “We don’t want to be jumping into this all at the same time.

“We want to get the ball rolling first and build the plane before we fly it.”

A curriculum-writing project this summer will target 32 content areas that will be dissected and rewritten by teams of curriculum writers, team leaders and editors to help align the district with the Common Core State Standards.

Having 130 employees already within the district working on the project will the give the district its own unique curriculum, while also giving the teachers and administrators an opportunity to be well versed in the material, Hill said.

“As I’ve said before, we don’t want to hire an outside company to come in and tell us what’s best for the district when we have teachers and administrators who know what they need to be teaching,” Hill said. “It also gives them an excellent opportunity to learn the material before they even step foot in the classroom to teach it.”

The curriculum-writing project will begin on June 10 and last until July 10.

At the end of the project, the district’s curriculum should be aligned with both Common Core State Standards as well as Mississippi Frameworks Standards for students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.





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