Curriculum changes coming to Washington Co. schools

August 13, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • The books pictured above are among those on the list of suggested readings in the Common Core curriculum program being adopted by Washington County Public Schools.
Photo illustration by Ric Dugan

Washington County Public Schools students can expect to do more writing and more real-world math problems this school year as teachers begin to phase in some practices emphasized in a new national curriculum that will replace the current one in two years.

There won't be major changes to the curriculum this school year as students still will be tested through the Maryland School Assessments and High School Assessments on concepts featured in the current curriculum, school system officials said.

The current curriculum was revised about 10 years ago, and was approved by the Maryland State Board of Education, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman with the Maryland State Department of Education.

The state education department developed standards for that curriculum, and the local school systems fleshed them out, he said. Under the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, students are tested based on those state standards.

The curriculum that is being developed this year and takes effect during the 2013-14 school year is based on the Common Core State Standards, an effort driven by the states and coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, according to Common Core's website at Forty-four states have adopted the standards, including Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The standards "define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs," according to

"While every state probably hopes that's the case (now), there's such variety of standards from state to state with no commonality," said Donna Hanlin, the local school system's assistant superintendent for curriculum, school administration and improvement.

"I think that we're always looking to expose our students or to teach our students more and more rigorous content, and that's what the Common Core does," Hanlin said. Hanlin said she thinks that increased rigor will be evident throughout the grades, not just in high school.

The Common Core standards "raises the rigor for all students, not just the ones who go into (their) high school education with the mindset already that they want to go to college," Hanlin said.

Aligning curriculums

Another difference is that representatives from colleges were involved in creating Common Core standards and in developing new assessment tests for the new curriculum, Hanlin said.

"If (we're) saying (we) want students to be college-ready, then higher ed has to be comfortable with that as well," Hanlin said.

"If the grade 12 assessment that students take determines they are college- and career-ready, then they are, and colleges agree," Hanlin said.

Students wouldn't take a test to determine if they need remedial work because the test they take in high school shows if students are ready to graduate and go to college, she said.

"Now, we work hard with Hagerstown Community College to make sure, as much as possible, that our curriculum is aligned with their expectations, but (we're) dealing with the Maryland curriculum and they're dealing with HCC (curriculum), so sometimes there is a disconnect," Hanlin said.

HCC and school system officials meet regularly to talk about aligning their curriculums, but with the new K-12 curriculum and assessments, there should "be less of a disconnect and (a) more seamless" transition, Hanlin said.

The Common Core's math and English standards were compared against international education standards so American students will be globally competitive when they graduate, Hanlin said.

Several Washington County principals and teachers attended training sessions this summer to learn about the new math and English standards, and teaching strategies. They worked on transition plans to move from the current curriculum to the new one, said Hanlin and Clyde Harrell, director for curriculum and instruction for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Participating educators will share that information with other teachers in their schools before and during the school year, Harrell said.

A draft of the new curriculum has been prepared and prototypes of the new assessment tests are in the works, Reinhard said.

A few test questions for the new assessments are expected to be included on the Maryland School Assessment tests, Hanlin said.

Preparing for change

Students might notice some changes this school year as teachers work in some of the skills Common Core emphasizes.

The Common Core standards focus on reading and math, but address social studies and science by incorporating reading material in those areas, Harrell said. For instance, students will read more nonfiction, such as science and history books.

For math, the new curriculum is expected to delve more deeply into fewer topics, said April Bishop, supervisor of secondary math.

For reading, the new curriculum is expected to encompass reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language, Harrell said.

The current Maryland curriculum includes writing, but the stronger emphasis has been on reading, Harrell said.

This school year, English teachers will focus more on writing and the styles of writing, Harrell said. Common Core primarily stresses three types of writing — informational; narrative; and opinion and argumentative, in which students must support their arguments with references to data and research.

Similarly, math students could learn more about abstract reasoning and problem solving, he said.

"We want kids to be good problem-solvers, to be good critical thinkers and problem-solvers," Hanlin said. "Those are the skills that help students across disciplines in solving problems and in everyday life."

The reading and writing standards will incorporate science and social studies.

Some teachers already have been using a cross-disciplinary approach, and Common Core will stress that more, Hanlin said. Not only will students read and write about social studies or science topics in English class, but the emphasis on writing will carry over to social studies and science classes, educators said.

Students might evaluate authors' differing points of view on the same historical event by assessing authors' claims, reasoning and evidence, Harrell said.

In science, students might evaluate a hypothesis by analyzing data and, when possible, verifying that data by corroborating or challenging conclusions with other sources of information, he said.

The gap

During a July 12 presentation to the Washington County Board of Education about Common Core, some concern was expressed about students getting caught in a curriculum gap when the school system moves to a new curriculum and about what will happen under Common Core with schools that are in "school improvement" under No Child Left Behind.

"We're going to definitely have some transition years, and we are concerned because we don't want students to have any gaps or miss any information or anything like that," Hanlin told the board.

"A lot of work is going into that to make sure it doesn't happen," she said.

Several Washington County schools are in "school improvement" or are "alert schools" because they didn't meet adequate yearly progress goals in reading and math based on last year's assessment tests.

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act sets increasing benchmarks each year for the percentage of students at schools and the percentage of students in various subgroup populations in schools to be at least proficient in reading and math. The ultimate goal is for every student to be at least proficient by the 2013-14 school year.

School board member Justin Hartings asked what would happen to schools that are "in improvement" when Common Core arrives and the new assessment tests kick in during the 2014-15 school year.

Hanlin said that is to be determined when Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox told the school board that the coming curriculum changes will present a "tremendous challenge."

"We have a lot of work ahead of us, a lot of work," he said.

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