Oklahoma among 40 states to adopt Common Core, computerized testing focusing on critical thinking

In just two years, millions of students across the country will start taking new computerized standardized tests that require them to write, think, analyze and solve problems -- a dramatic departure from the fill-in-the-bubble tests in place for decades.

But it won't come easily or cheaply.

The move away from a testing model that relies on memory and a No. 2 pencil would cost an estimated $1 billion to implement in California alone, state Superintendent Tom Torlakson said. That would include the cost to update curriculum, provide teacher training and get more computers in classrooms, and it would require changing some state laws, Torlakson said.

He outlined several recommendations to help get schools ready for the change. They include getting legislators to approve suspending 30 of the grade-level, course-specific standardized tests given to students next year to save money and give schools breathing room to prepare for a new testing system that starts in 2015.

Torlakson's recommendations were made with input from a statewide task force that reviewed how to transition to the new tests, which will be based on national academic standards called the Common Core.

The Common Core outlines what children should learn in math and English at each grade level, offering for the first time a common road map for what to teach and when to teach it. Science standards are in process.

More than 40 states have adopted the new standards and are expected to administer the aligned tests.

Common Core Standards Adoption By State (Courtesy of ascd.org)

The new standards emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving rather than memorization. They feature a wide range of reading materials that include fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction essays, articles and texts.

In 12th grade, a student might be asked to analyze hierarchical relationships in a phrase or Boolean searches based on "Google Hacks: Tips & Tools for Smarter Searching."

Or a sixth-grader might "trace the line of argument in Winston Churchill's 'Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat' address to Parliament and evaluate his specific claims and opinions in the text, distinguishing which claims are supported by facts, reasons and evidence, and which are not," according to Common Core sample questions.

The curriculum and testing offer a more creative and effective way to prepare students for life beyond high school, Torlakson said.

The tests, developed nationally with input from teachers and testing experts, will include questions that will zero in on a student's knowledge as well as fill-in-the-blank and essay questions, graded by humans.

While essay questions might sound less standardized, graders are looking for specific writing skills.

Schools lacking computers will be able to give a written version of the test, but only for a few years, Torlakson said.

Adapted versions of the test are expected to be made available for English language learners, using simpler vocabulary, glossaries or translation into other languages, including American Sign Language and Spanish, Torlakson said.

Using the current English-only tests, it's unclear whether students don't know English or don't know, say, fractions.

The new Common Core testing system will start with math and English in spring 2015. Other subjects, including science, would follow later.

Torlakson also recommended that the Legislature look at whether the state should eliminate the High School Exit Exam, using the new tests to verify whether students possess the minimum skills needed to graduate -- which would also be a less expensive option.

Regardless, the new tests will cost more and, with essay questions, take more time, but it's worth it, Torlakson said.

"The concept is simple but powerful," he said. "If our tests require students to think critically and solve problems to do well on test day, those same skills are much more likely to be taught in our classrooms day in and day out."

And that's good for business, said David Rattray, senior vice president of Education and Workforce Development at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

"No employer would measure their own staff based on memorizing the personnel manual or handbook," he said. "They measure results."

(Contact Jill Tucker at jtucker@sfchronicle.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)



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