LETTER: The Montana Common Core Standards: What Exactly Are They?

By Beacon Staff

It is the expectation of students, parents and the community that a school district will create a course of instruction where every student can expect to be ready for a career or to enter post secondary education. In order to successfully complete this task, schools must be clearly able to answer four questions. What do we need our students to know or be able to do? What strategies will we use to help them learn? How will we know when students have achieved that goal? What will we do for the students who are struggling or need to be challenged?

Question one has always been challenging because it has varied greatly among states and in some states it even varied widely among schools. The skills and knowledge level of students at the same grade level could fluctuate greatly dependent on where they attended school. In addition, it had been noted that schools in various areas throughout the nation that participated in an international assessment of achievement called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAPE) were not comparing well to students in other countries. This fact was a concern for educators, employers and post secondary institutions alike. In response to this disparity of skills and academic achievement, in 2010, a group of educators from across the country came together to design a staircase of common student outcomes for each grade level. These outcomes were built upon previous state standards, research and international comparisons. The final product of this work is what is now called the Common Core standards.

Each state had the option to adopt this set of common expectations for each grade level in both mathematics and English language arts/literacy. The state of Montana brought together focus groups to examine the Common Core standards and determine if they aligned to the current state standards. In 2012, the Office of Public Instruction announced that along with more than 40 other states, Montana would adopt the Common Core standards. This means that by end of each grade, our expectations for students in the Flathead Valley are the same expectations held for students in Cheyenne, Wyo.; Milwaukee, Wis., and all states that have adopted the CCS.

The Montana Core Standards have no dictated curriculum or reading lists nor do they provide direction on how a standard should be taught. The selection of the curriculum and supporting materials is a local decision that is approved by local school boards. Montana’s state constitution leaves curriculum development to local districts. Teachers, working with district leadership, are free to use whatever strategies they feel will best meet their specific student needs and will continue to use their professional judgment to meet the goals set out by these standards. So the answer to the question on, how will we teach the selected standards?: it is up to local school districts to select curriculum and to local school district staff to choose the most effective instructional strategies.

The next question is how do we know if our students have successfully accomplished the goals as identified in the MCCS? First, let me say that we have ample evidence that the students in Montana consistently score very well in national and international comparisons. The United States Department of Education just released an expanded comparison of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores in each state to international benchmarks. Montana students scored very favorably in a comparison to other countries’ scores in both math (6th in the world) and science (4th in the world). The incorporation of these new standards does not require additional assessment. However, the nature of our local and state assessments will need to change to align with modifications to grade level standards. The federal Elementary and Secondary Act already requires an annual assessment in mathematics and English Language Arts in grades 3-8 and once in high school. This will continue to be the case. Many states have taken the creation of new standards as an opportunity to collaborate on the design of a more meaningful common assessment by working with one of two coalitions. Our state is working with a large group of other states in what is called the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, to develop assessments that will more deeply test a student’s understanding and application of content. These assessments will first be given the spring of 2014 as a pilot, and then officially replace existing assessments the following year. We expect that the scores of our local students will continue to compare favorably with both national and international outcomes!

If you have questions or would like additional information around MCCS, I encourage you to explore the Office of Public Instruction website at www.mt.opi.gov. Locally, we always welcome the opportunity to visit. Please feel free to call 751-3434.

Darlene Schottle, superintendent
Kalispell Public Schools