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Education department responds to anti-Core letter

State Department of Education

Dear Senator Thayn and Superintendent Thomas,

The following is the Idaho State Department of Education’s response to your letter, dated October 17, 2013, which expressed concerns about the rollout of the Common Core State Standards in Idaho. We appreciate your feedback as well as the opportunity to respond. Our responses are written into the text of the letter in red below. Any reference material has been hyperlinked or provided in footnotes.

We are also providing a copy of this response to Governor Otter, Representatives, Senators, school administrators, and members of the media who have requested it.

Please let us know if you have additional questions.

Dear Superintendent Luna, Governor Otter, Representatives, Senators, and interested parties:

Concerning: Common Core

From: Senator Steven Thayn and Superintendent Dr. Geoffrey M. Thomas Madison School District 321

We have serious concerns about the rollout of Common Core which we feel need to be addressed.

First: Common Core has not been pilot or field tested. Given this fact, CCSS may contain solid standards or they may contain several serious flaws which will harm students. We simply don’t know because of the lack of research. No empirical evidence exists to indicate that CCSS is better than the current Idaho standards. Therefore, why are we risking a whole generation of students on a set of standards that have not been tested?

There is evidence that these standards are better preparing students to go on after high school: just look at Kentucky. Kentucky implemented these higher academic standards before any other state. They have now tested students against these higher standards for two years and seen positive results. In 2010, only 34 percent of Kentucky students graduated prepared for college or career. Now, 54 percent are graduating prepared, a significant increase in the number of students who now do not need to take remedial courses once they go on to postsecondary.

Even if you just look at Idaho, you will see that statewide academic standards are not new. Achievement standards were developed in the 1990s to ensure students were mastering the same information and knowledge at the end of a grade level no matter where they lived in the state of Idaho. When these standards first began, they were not piloted or field tested, yet they were based on research, vetted with Idaho teachers and Idaho policymakers, and raised student achievement significantly.

When Idaho began exploring the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, Idaho teachers conducted a gap analysis and compared the Idaho standards at the time to the new Common Core State Standards. They found that the Common Core State Standards, now referred to as the Idaho Core Standards since adoption, were considerably higher than the previous standards Idaho had in place. Idaho’s colleges and universities also have told us that students who graduate with mastery in these standards will be prepared for the rigors of postsecondary and the workforce.

The standards development process incorporated best practices and research from across the nation and the world. Appendix A of the English language arts standards lists the research supporting key elements of the standards. Page 91 of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics lists the research consulted in the development of the math standards.

Another concern is that in CCSS math has no remediation built in or “looping.” Looping is a continual review of previously covered concepts. High quality math curriculum introduces a new concept each day, reviews previous concepts each day, and uses story problems to challenge students to apply the math concepts learned to real life situations.

If Common Core does not support, encourage, and require remediation or looping, then, for this issue alone, they should be rejected. All successful math teachers will provide testimony to the fact that students need continual remediation.

Looping is a term used to describe teachers who move up a grade level with their students. It is not normally associated with instruction. The authors are likely referring to “spiraling,” which is often championed by Saxon math advocates.

Research has shown the negative effects of simply touching on mathematical concepts then “spiraling” back to continually review the topics, rather than teaching the concepts in depth.1 When a teacher teaches the concepts in depth, students learn how to solve a problem and think through it critically, which helps them master higher levels of mathematics throughout their school career and in life.

This misconception is based on the myth that the Idaho Core Standards are a math curriculum. The standards set goals for what a child should be able to know and do at each grade level. The standards are not a curriculum, a set of textbooks or supplementary materials, or a teacher’s lesson plan. The curriculum and curricular materials will still be determined at the local level by local school boards, just as they have been for decades. Idaho Code 33-512 specifies that local school boards have authority over curricular materials. That law has not changed.

Once the district has adopted a curriculum at the local level, teachers are responsible for designing and planning quality mathematics instruction so students can learn the content as well as the necessary problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Highly skilled teachers understand that quality mathematics instruction is grounded in research on how students learn best. They know and understand that students’ mathematical skills are reinforced and deepened when they are applied to quality problem-solving tasks that require students to use existing knowledge in service of new learning. This was emphasized in the state-required, three-credit Mathematical Thinking for Instruction course that all elementary and mathematics teachers took as part of the Idaho Math Initiative. It is the teacher who determines what support, or remediation, is appropriate to assist students who struggle as they develop their mathematical knowledge. Neither a textbook nor a curriculum can determine the correct remediation. Teachers will work with their building principals, the student’s parent, and the district administration, as needed. The state also provides funding to local school districts for remediation.

It is said that Common Core is a set of standards and not a curriculum; however, curriculum follows standards and testing follows curriculum so they are intertwined. It is also claimed that the Common Core standards can be taught in a variety of ways. However, this appears to be an overstatement with certain teaching methods required.

It is true that local school districts may need to reassess their curriculum if the state changes academic standards, but this is not a new process. Districts go through this process every five years since the state first adopted academic standards. The state looks at each content area on a rotating five-year cycle and determines whether or not the standards need to be updated to better meet students’ needs. In Idaho, per Idaho Code 33-512, local school boards decide what curricular materials are used in classrooms. The state does not require any textbook, novel or other curriculum or curricular material to be used in an Idaho classroom, nor does the state require any certain teaching methods. The state only sets the goal for what a child should know and be able to do at the end of each grade level through content standards; it is up to each local school district to determine the best way to meet that goal.

Second: the rollout of Common Core has been implemented very quickly which is leading to frustration on the part of teachers, students, and parents. A much slower piloted rollout would ease these growing concerns.

Idaho’s rollout of the Common Core State Standards will span six years. While the conversation about common standards actually dates back to 2007, the voluntary, state-led process for developing common standards in mathematics and English language arts began in 2009. States drafted the standards in 2010. Idaho spent a year reviewing the standards, holding public meetings, and going through the State Board of Education and Legislature’s vetting processes. School districts have been preparing for the new standards since the state voluntarily adopted them in 2011. Many districts began transitioning to the new standards in the 2011-2012 school year. All public schools now are fully teaching to the new standards this school year, the 2013-2014 school year. The state piloted the new assessment in 124 schools in Spring 2013. All public schools will have the opportunity to experience the new assessment in Spring 2014 through a field test, a more extensive pilot. This will all occur before the state administers the first test aligned to these higher academic standards for accountability purposes in the Spring of 2015. Therefore, as you can see, Idaho has taken a phased-in approach since 2009 to work with parents, teachers and policymakers to develop, review and implement these academic standards.

Third: the danger of universal standardization through common core – Standardization is a powerful tool; however, standardizing the wrong thing or having the wrong standards can lead to stagnation, lack of innovation, and decline. Districts and teachers need to have greater autonomy and promote education that is focused on the individual student. CCSS is the most invasive standardization effort we have ever witnessed. One size does not fit all students.

As we go on the road and speak with teachers and school administrators, they tell us the Common Core State Standards give them more flexibility in the classroom and at the school level than they have had in over a decade. According to Dana DeHaan, the curriculum director for the Cassia County School District, local schools have probably gained more local control than ever under the new Idaho Core Standards. “We feel like we have probably gained a lot more control over it,” DeHaan said in a radio interview with Superintendent Tom Luna on Newsradio KINF. “We are digging in and writing our own (curriculum).”

DeHaan has worked in public education for 20 years – all in Idaho. Before becoming curriculum director, she taught at every grade level except second grade, bringing years of classroom experience to her current position. She was working as a teacher when Idaho first transitioned to a standards-based education system in the 1990s and remembers being eager to move to standards. “For teachers, it helped guide us. It helped make us critical consumers of curriculum,” she said. “They freed us up from the textbooks.”

Now, teachers in Cassia County are excited about the new Idaho Core Standards because they will be “a real bump up in the expectations for all of our kids.”

“One of the biggest concerns teachers had with the previous standards were they were minimum proficiency standards. They were preparing kids for multiple choice tests,” DeHaan said. The new standards are preparing kids for problem solving, critical thinking, and “a deeper level of thinking,” she described.

This is just one example. We have heard the same sentiment from educators across the state.

Fourth: the length, cost and level of difficulty associated with the test. The test will take much longer than previous tests. The SBAC test is also significantly harder. Recently, administrators in Madison School District 321 took a sample third grade SBAC literature exam. These individuals with advanced college degrees took up to 15 minutes to answer only 10 questions. If the exam is that hard for adults, what will this do to our young children? There is a fine line between challenging our students and frustrating them and making them feel intellectually inadequate.

Have we figured out how to challenge without discouraging our students? We don’t think so. Also, the test has portions that must be hand graded. The annual cost of the ISAT is about $5.8 million. The State Department of Education believes the SBAC will cost about the same. We think the cost will be between $8 and $10 million because of the extra time and cost of hand grading.

The new end-of-the-year, summative assessment will cost approximately the same as what the state is currently paying for the ISAT. These cost estimates from Smarter Balanced include the necessary grading. One benefit of Idaho working with a consortium of states is that we are able to realize economies of scale so Idaho can finally implement a next-generation assessment that will be more meaningful to students, parents and teachers.

This assessment may take some students more time. While the test is not timed, it is more than a multiple choice test. This test will measure critical thinking and problem-solving, which will take more time for students. This is to be expected, and the state is working with educators and parents to make sure they understand this. While this test may take more time, there are two important things to keep in mind: 1) students will not take all of it in one sitting, and 2) it is a better test. First, the testing times can be divided up to give students breaks and make sure they do not get testing fatigue. Second, this is a better test that provides a better measurement than a multiple choice test would. The test will be more challenging for students because the standards are more challenging. These standards make sure every child will graduate from high school prepared for college or career, without the need for remediation. Anything less than that is unacceptable. As a state, we must work with educators and with parents to make sure our students and families understand that in the first few years, not as many students will score on grade level as in years past. This is not a bad thing. This gives us the information we need to better prepared them while they are still in K-12 school so they can graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge they need.

Fifth: the SBAC assessment requires data to be entered for each student that the Smarter Balance group will have access to because they are giving the test and need to breakdown the data. The danger is that it appears the federal government will have access to this data through Smarter Balance. If this is the case, Idaho cannot protect individual student data from the federal government if Idaho gives the SBAC test. This is a fundamental issue of privacy that needs to be seriously debated and the long-term ramifications understood.

The testing vendors that Idaho is working with to administer the field test in Spring 2014 and to administer the first operational test in Spring 2015 do not require any additional data that the state’s previous testing vendor required in order to administer the ISAT. In fact, the state of Idaho just confirmed with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium a new policy that makes sure each individual state is in control of its data and to ensure SBAC will never collect parent’s names, student or parent social security numbers, parent or student addresses, or parent or student medical information.

Though it is all well and good for us to express our concerns, we also have several suggestions that will address these concerns.

First: Slow down. Pilot Common Core in school districts that want to adopt Common Core standards and allow other school districts to opt out. This would allow the proper time for a field test and eventual comparisons between districts to see if Common Core methods and standards are actually superior or not. Pilot testing would provide informed empirical data rather than subjective opinion upon which we are now acting.

As was stated earlier, the rollout of the Idaho Core Standards has been a very deliberate process, spanning six years. While proper implementation of the standards is critical, there must also be a sense of urgency. Too many Idaho students are graduating from high school each year unprepared for the rigors of postsecondary education or the workforce. We do not have the luxury of time to solve this pressing problem. We must be proactive before we fall further behind. In addition, it is important to note that some Idaho school districts did choose to implement the standards earlier than required by the state and have shared their best practices with other schools and districts in Idaho.

The State Department of Education asked the Attorney General’s office for an opinion on whether a district could refuse to implement the academic standards set by the state of Idaho. The response was, “Public school districts cannot refuse to implement the minimum academic standards established by the State Board of Education.” The content standards set by the State Board of Education and the Idaho Legislature are the minimum standards every school district must use “in order to establish a level of academic content necessary to graduate from Idaho’s public schools.” IDAPA The Attorney General’s opinion further states, “Consequently, public school districts cannot refuse to implement the minimum standards established by the SBOE, but may go beyond such established minimums if the district desires to establish a more rigorous set of standards.”

Second: for those school districts that opt out, let them drop out of the SBAC test and focus their preparation utilizing the ACT or SAT. These two tests are already familiar and student test results recognized by colleges and universities. This would provide college readiness comparisons between Common Core and non-Common Core districts and provide greater local autonomy and decision making for boards of trustees. Utah for example, has adopted Common Core but has refused to adopt the SBAC test and plans on replacing it with ACT.

As stated in the previous answer, individual school districts cannot opt out of the state standards. Idaho established statewide academic standards more than a decade ago to ensure we have a “uniform” system of public, free common schools across the state of Idaho. In addition, states like Utah are not using the ACT as their statewide standardized test. The state of Utah is contracting with a newly formed partnership between ACT and Pearson to create their own assessment that will measure students in Utah against the Common Core State Standards. Students in Utah still will need to take the ACT or SAT when applying to college, similar to students in Idaho, Oregon, Washington or any other state in the United States.

Third: Allow the non-Common Core districts to create their own End of Course assessments over the next 3 years to test progress for students in 3rd through 10th grades. This test would be less expensive less time consuming and provide students, parents and teachers with a much faster turnaround time to learn their results.

This does not address the challenge of creating a uniform system of public education for all Idaho students. We have to make sure students are not only held to the same standards but that they are meeting this standard. Providing and administering the same assessment to students helps accomplish this goal. In addition, at this point, end-of-course assessments likely would not be less expensive than the statewide assessment. If each district was required to create secure end-of-course assessments to administer to students in multiple subject areas at the end of each year, this would likely cost districts more than it would cost the state. The state realizes certain economies of scale in developing and in implementing a statewide assessment. Most Idaho districts, especially small and rural districts, could not realize these cost savings. Idaho has realized even more cost savings by partnering with other states through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Fourth: support Senator Thayn’s bill to allow parents to choose alternative math curriculum in elementary school and alternative curriculum for government class in high school. This would engage the parents, provide greater local control and allow for even more competition of ideas.

Superintendent Luna has supported efforts in the past to provide Idaho parents and students with more flexibility in choosing the best course or curriculum to meet their needs, as long as these courses are aligned to state academic standards.

Preserving our Idaho heritage of local control, individual academic freedom and allowing for competition of methods and ideas only makes sense.


Senator Steven Thayn and Superintendent Dr. Geoffrey M. Thomas

1 Wu, H. (2011, Fall). Phoenix Rising: Bringing the Common Core State Mathematics Standards to Life. American Educator, 3-13. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/fall2011/Wu.pdf.
Schmidt, W.H. (2004, September). Papers and Presentations, Mathematics and Science Initiative. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/research/progs/mathscience/schmidt.html.
Gu, W. (2010, September). Were Our Mathematics Textbooks a Mile Wide and an Inch Deep? Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED511928.
Kulm, G. (1999, May). Evaluating Mathematics Textbooks. Basic Education, 43 (9). Retrieved from http://www.project2061.org/publications/articles/articles/cbe.htm.
Kilpatrick, J., Swafford, J., & Findell, B. (2001) Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=9822&page=159.


Tom Luna

Tom Luna is the Superintendent of Public Instruction for Idaho.

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