Embracing and Implementing New K-12 Standards in English, Mathematics and Science

Biology, Foothill College
ASCCC Vice President

Community college faculty are concerned about the significant numbers of students arriving at the college door unprepared to succeed in college-level work. The Academic Senate has several resolutions seeking better communication of what it means to be ready for college and better alignment of preparation, particularly in English and mathematics. National debate is currently focused on student preparation, with President Obama discussing approaches to improving student skills and knowledge, and the governor making frequent reference of the need for improved performance of California’s high school students. To address these well-known concerns, U.S. governors and educators have collaborated extensively, and as a result of this large scale effort, newly defined K-12 standards for students in English and mathematics have been adopted and new science standards are due for release this month. With full implementation of the standards just around the corner, community college faculty should be prepared for this new generation of students, as significant changes in the knowledge and abilities of students entering California community colleges are likely.

The new nationally-developed and vetted K-12 standards for math and English are known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the California Legislature adopted them in 2010. California is a member of a consortium of states that have joined forces to implement the CCSS; the consortium is called Smarter Balanced (the acronym is SBAC for Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium). SBAC is one of two such consortia in the nation. Through SBAC, California will begin assessing student achievement of the new standards in the spring of 2015, and these students will begin arriving at community colleges in the summer or fall of 2016.

The new assessments from SBAC are anticipated to have a significant, positive impact for students. High school students are currently required to participate in the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and the California Standards Testing (CST), which is part of the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program. However, the STAR Program and CAHSEE are not aligned to assess the actual expectations higher education faculty have for incoming freshman. and this situation only adds to the mixed messages high school students and their parents often receive about expectations for student preparation and readiness for life after high school. The new assessments from SBAC should minimize the mixed messages because the sole purpose of the assessments is to determine a student's readiness for work or college and give clear messages about that readiness to students, parents, and teachers. These assessments are therefore good news for community college faculty because we want students to have accurate information about their readiness and how to make their high school experience valuable in preparing them for the future.

Not only will the new SBAC system replace the current STAR Program, but it will also replace the assessment portion of the Early Assessment Program (EAP) used by the CSU system and by many community colleges. One objective of the EAP was to measure college-readiness during the junior year of high school by adding 15 questions and, for English assessment, an additional written essay to the CST for grade 11. However, EAP has raised several concerns: it is a voluntary test, and the results are given to students late in the summer, leaving little time to plan for senior year. Because SBAC is a computer-adaptive test, results should be more useful and valid for students who typically score very high or low on non-adaptive tests, and students should receive assessment results well in time to plan for their senior year. Providing feedback about college-readiness sooner, and to all rather than just some students, should help improve both teaching and learning whenever the test is given.

Although the CCSS are intended for K-12, California higher education faculty have been invited to review and provide feedback for the assessment test items and the definitions of college readiness, as well as participate in conversations about what being career ready means. Faculty from community colleges will be involved in the messaging to students about their test results and options to increase their preparation through 12th grade coursework through a Chancellor's Office workgroup on SBAC and CCSS. The proposed definitions of content readiness in mathematics and English are provided here. Note the similar structure and the focus on these skill sets as the foundation for ALL postsecondary work.

Proposed English Language Arts Definition (February 2013) Proposed Mathematics Definition (February 2013)
Students who perform at the college content-readiness level demonstrate reading, writing, listening, and research skills necessary for introductory courses in a variety of disciplines. They also demonstrate subject-area knowledge and skills associated with readiness for entry-level, transferable, credit-bearing English and composition courses. Students who perform at the college content-ready level demonstrate foundational mathematical knowledge and quantitative reasoning skills necessary for introductory courses in a variety of disciplines. They also demonstrate subject-area knowledge and skills associated with readiness for entry-level, transferable, credit bearing mathematics and statistics courses.

SBAC will follow the trail blazed by EAP, and students in 11th grade will receive one of three messages based on their performance on the assessment of the new standards: 1) you are exempted from remediation in math (or English) in college provided you take a sufficiently rigorous math (or English) course in 12th grade; 2) you will be exempted from remedial work in college provided you take specific math and/or English courses in 12th grade to complete your preparation, or 3) you are not exempt from remedial courses in college based on your performance up to this point. The SBAC assessments will not be actual placement tests and are designed only to exempt students from remedial work in college. And although these new standards will establish what K-12 students are expected to learn as they progress toward high school graduation and life after high school, at this time students who do not meet the standards will be faced with no consequences.

In addition to the CCSS for mathematics and English, new science standards are also under development. These “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS), emphasize deeper understanding, application, and re-organization of content for greater integration across disciplinary boundaries. The “Conceptual Shifts” and the draft “Definition of College and Career Readiness in Science” seem promising and ambitious, and if the NGSS are successfully implemented, community college faculty can expect to see a drastically different level of preparedness in the students arriving at the colleges. Based on the vision set forth in the “Framework for K-12 Science Education,” the NGSS are intended to integrate scientific practices with crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas:

  • Practices: behaviors that scientists engage in
  • Crosscutting Concepts: application across all scientific disciplines (e.g. patterns, diversity, systems and system models, etc.)
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas: physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, engineering, technology, and applications of science

The draft NGSS definition of college readiness for science students is included here for review:

College and Career Ready Students can demonstrate evidence of:
  1. Applying a blend of Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) to make sense of the world and approach problems not previously encountered by the student, new situations, new phenomena, and new information;
  2. Self-directed planning, monitoring, and evaluation;
  3. Applying knowledge more flexibly across various disciplines through the continual exploration of Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and DCIs;
  4. Employing valid and reliable research strategies; and
  5. Exhibiting evidence of the effective transfer of mathematics and disciplinary literacy skills to science.

In all three proposed definitions, students must demonstrate the ability to transfer knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, which is an important skill for success in college-level work and an expectation of many college faculty.

The California State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SSPI) must propose new science standards based on the NGSS to the Legislature by July 2013. The final touches are being applied to the NGSS standards now and the final version is due for release this spring. Once released, the SSPI will prepare his proposal and must seek public feedback on it before presenting it for adoption by the state. California educators were leaders in the effort to develop the science standards and many hope the SSPI will propose to adopt them as is rather than modifying them. If the NGSS are adopted, then implementation will begin in 2014.

These new standards have the potential to dramatically change what is learned in high school as well as how it is learned. Community college faculty should embrace the new standards, continue working on definitions of college and career readiness, assessments of the standards, and messaging to students, and, most importantly, begin examining what effect these new standards and assessments will have on our curriculum and teaching methodologies. Watch for more on this topic in the next edition of the Rostrum.