District scrambles to adapt to new graduation and testing requirements

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Photo: Sam Barton

Common Core surges through national media, as its benefits are pitted against the problems with its implementation.

By Sam Barton, Editor-in-Chief

The OGT is on its last leg. The Class of 2017 will be the last class to take the Ohio Graduation Test, as Common Core-based curriculum and testing is beginning to take its place.

That means this year’s freshmen will  spend more than 20 days taking standardized state assessments to walk across the stage their senior year, instead of the five days of OGT testing that students have taken since 2005.

Ohio and many other states are switching their educational standards and testing requirements for graduation, and Fairmont High School is undergoing some major changes in an effort to adapt.

It’s already been a bumpy ride, and the journey isn’t over yet.

Testing chart cropped and flattened
Infographic: The Flyer

One of the biggest problems Fairmont has faced is that the state has been slow to finalize its policies for the implementation of these changes.

“It has been a challenging process because, even right now as we speak, some of the testing requirements are still in flux,” Fairmont Principal Dan VonHandorf said earlier this month. “When you’re trying to schedule testing for 1,200 students — that’s half of our student population — and you don’t know what the requirements are just months before you have to take the tests, that’s a pretty challenging thing.”

VonHandorf also revealed that Fairmont administrators only recently learned that this year’s sophomores won’t have to take the full battery of new assessments in addition to the OGT. Many students, teachers, and administrators previously thought the sophomores would be taking 17 hours of new tests in addition to the 12.5 hours of Ohio Graduation Testing. That would have made them the most tested class of students in state history.

Instead, this year’s sophomores will only have to take two 90-minute American Government tests in addition to the OGT.

Beginning this year, freshmen will take 17 hours of tests, followed by another 14 hours of tests their sophomore year.

Preparing for the Common Core … and more

Common Core has been a controversial topic in the news since the standards were adopted by many states in 2010. The Common Core is a set of rigorous educational standards created for K-12 students in response to a nationwide gubernatorial call for education reform.

The Common Core standards are in English and math, and students will be assessed annually using tests currently under development by PARCC (the Partnership for Assessments of Readiness for College and Career).

But the Ohio Department of Education also decided that standards for science and social studies should be revised to be more similar to those in the Common Core. The state developed these new standards as well as the subsequent tests, which are supposed to closely mirror the PARCC Common Core assessments.

Since the adoption of the standards in 2010, Dave Delon has played a pivotal role in preparing Kettering City Schools for the transition from the OGT to Common Core.

Delon was the Secondary Curriculum Leader for the district until August 2014, when he was named principal at Kettering Middle School. Former Fairmont English teacher Sherri Alexander took on the Secondary Curriculum Leader post.

“The Common Core is preparing our students, whether it’s in Ohio or California, with a consistent set of standards that we know are rigorous,” said Delon, citing another important reason for the new standards: easier comparability of student testing from state to state.

The first time our teachers looked at the standards, their eyes popped open, especially the math teachers, because of how rigorous they are.”

— Dave Delon

The standards are a step up from those Ohio had under the OGT, especially in math, as 7th-graders will now be studying what used to be 8th-grade material. This  accelerates Kettering’s math program by an entire year, starting in kindergarten.

“The first time our teachers looked at the standards, their eyes popped open, especially the math teachers, because of how rigorous they are,” Delon said.

High stakes tests and worried parents

But that’s the point of Common Core, to raise the bar for American students, who are seen as increasingly unprepared for college and careers. The difficulty of the new standards, however, is one of the more pressing concerns in regard to Common Core, as many parents and educators across the country are skeptical of higher stakes testing.

But VonHandorf says that criticism is misguided.

“High stakes in Ohio means students need to pass these tests to graduate,” said VonHandorf. “Anytime you are changing graduation requirements, people get very nervous.”

Fairmont’s principal says change is inevitable if schools want to increase students’ readiness for college and careers.

American jobs have left and we’re still educating students like it’s the 1950s… .”

— Dave Delon

“For schools and students to move forward, it is important to continually look for ways to improve what we do and how we do it,” VonHandorf said. “These new tests will encourage schools and teachers to adjust to incorporate technology and updated, more rigorous curriculum.”

Delon agrees, citing international changes in education.

“The idea is that the more rigorous the standards, the more we expect of our students, and the more they will leave high school with the 21st century skills that they will need in this changing, competitive, global marketplace,” Delon said. “American jobs have left and we’re still educating students like it’s the 1950s, as though there will be some type of manufacturing or factory job available when they leave high school.”

Besides the rigorous standards, many Americans have expressed concern that the Common Core is some sort of national curriculum. But Delon says those fears are unfounded.

“The states have agreed to implement these standards, but each school district still makes decisions as to how they teach and which resources they use to meet those standards,” Delon said. “So the curriculum ends up being what the local schools and teachers decide.”

The logistics of testing and remediation

But there are other problems with the implementation of these new standards.

Delon said a big challenge is the amount of instructional time that is lost through testing, so administrators will have to figure out how to keep that to a minimum when even more testing will now be taking place.

“We will probably have about 450 students who are going to have to take an Algebra I exam, and the entire freshman class is going to have to take some sort of English exam, said Delon. “We are not going to be able to give that test to every kid at once like we did with OGT.”

This means Fairmont will see large-scale testing environments in the cafeteria and commons and testing during both the morning and afternoon — over multiple days and twice a year.

With the OGT, the sophomores took the five sections of the test each morning for five days in March, while the freshmen took the four-day “practice” FGT to help prepare them for the important OGT the next year. Juniors and seniors came in late, and then all students attended classes in the afternoon.

“Our old model for the OGT was just one week,” VonHandorf said,  “Well you can’t do that for 8 weeks; you lose too much time.”

Another area of concern is what will happen if a student fails one or more of the new assessments. VonHandorf said that until late September, the remediation process was still completely up in the air.

“Now we know that students are allowed to retake tests if they are in a course that is designed to improve their skills in that subject area,” said VonHandorf. But the logistics are just another bump in the road, as the district now has to scramble to develop policies, procedures — and potentially new classes — to make remediation possible.

Fairmont already offers an Algebra 1 “Restart” class that allows students to take the course, and then restart the course at the semester, giving students two chances to relearn the material. VonHandorf said this type of class will be used to remediate students who fail the new assessments.

Longitudinal data analysis

Many aspects of the new Common Core-based system, such as intervention based on longitudinal data analysis, will take years before their effects will be seen in assessments.

We are trying to meet our state requirements and set kids up to be highly successful on these tests, and at the same time maintain business as usual for the other 2,100 kids who aren’t testing.”

— Dan VonHandorf

“What they’re trying to do is to get a  longitudinal track of data so they know ‘All right, this is kind of where we need to get a student by the end of 3rd grade, this is where we need to get a student by the end of 4th grade’ and so on,” said Delon. “Once this exists, teachers can look at how their kids scored the year before, look at where they should be for career/college readiness, and then intervene. Common Core allows teachers to intervene as early as 4th grade so that they can make sure that kids meet the year before’s standards each year.”

Delon recognizes that today’s high school students are at a disadvantage because they will be assessed without the benefit of years of Common Core-based instruction and intervention designed to prepare them for the new graduation tests.

“Right now, we do an awful lot with high school students to try to push them up and get them where they need to be academically, and it’s much harder in high school than it is in 3rd or 4th grade,” said Delon. “The idea is that if we can provide that intervention support earlier and know exactly what to provide, then it’s just going to be better for the student along the way. They aren’t waiting to get help junior year of high school; they’re getting help when they need it in elementary school and middle school.”

VonHandorf agrees that the implementation of the new standards will go more smoothly as time passes. “Years from now when my second-grader, who is at Southdale, has been learning the Common Core curriculum every year and being tested every year, she is going to be more used to that curriculum and more used to those kind of tests than our current freshmen are,” he said.

Improving technology, training teachers

But since Common Core and related ODE testing are going to be implemented immediately for all grades, the Kettering School District has been preparing for it in as many ways as it can.

Students will use computers to take the new assessments, so the district sought and received an $8.3 million grant to add computers and other technology upgrades at the high school and middle school.

“This will allow students to use more technology on a daily basis in their classrooms,” VonHandorf said. “Our students will be better prepared to score well on the new computer- enhanced tests and be technologically proficient.”

The administration and teaching staff also have worked vigorously to modify their classroom curriculums to correspond with the new standards and emphasis on technology.

“We have been really proactive the last 2 years — pulling teachers out to try to learn the curriculum, giving them example rubrics on how to score students, getting our technology infrastructure to a point where we could actually test 300 students at one time in one area,” said VonHandorf. “We’re ready for that now, but we weren’t two years ago.”

Despite these efforts, Fairmont and the district still have lots of work ahead to get ready for the seismic shift to Common Core and related assessments.

“We are trying to meet our state requirements and set kids up to be highly successful on these tests, and at the same time maintain business as usual for the other 2,100 kids who aren’t testing,” said VonHandorf.