Ready Or Not, Common Core Enters First Test Year In Illinois

Aug 28, 2014

Illinois educators say they’re entering a critical phase for implementing common core standards. School districts have spent the last few years training teachers, while introducing these new learning methods. Classrooms are now gearing up for the first true year of measuring progress.

In the Sycamore School District, Curriculum Director Kris Webster says the new standardized test, known as PARCC, is much more complex than the longstanding exams students take each year. She reads from a sample question on her computer screen.

“Today, you will read stories about characters who save family members. As you read these stories, you will answer questions and think about the characters. At the end of the task, you will be asked to write an essay using information from the stories,” Webster said.

In the first part of the question, the student has to match the phrase the best describes the meaning of the word “master”. But that’s not all.

“Then for part B, it would say which detail from the story best supports the answer for part A. So not only do they have to decide what’s the best meaning for “master”, they have to say which sentence gave them the clue,” Webster said.

And that, in a nutshell, is how Common Core works. Webster and school administrators across the state are now hoping all the planning and work they’ve done for Common Core pays off when students take the PARCC next spring. This much more rigorous test replaces the I-SAT and Prairie State exams, and eventually, the ACT.

“Our philosophy is to focus on instruction and doing good work for kids, and if we do that well, we will do fine on any test they send us,” Webster said.

Preparing for a new exam isn’t the only thing on the minds of administrators. They’re also starting to get ready to add other subjects to the Common Core list. For example, new science standards will join math and English Language Arts in the fall of 2016.

Ashleigh Van Thiel is the Director of Talent Development for the Rockford Public School District. She says now that teachers and most students are becoming a little more comfortable with the Common Core, they need to make sure parents truly understand how these new standards work.

“Is there a parent out there who has maybe [just] heard about it for the first time and needs a better understanding? Absolutely,” Van Thiel said.

Van Thiel says that means holding district-wide workshops on getting parents caught up to speed.

Illinois Board of Education Spokeswoman Mary Fergus says at the state level, they know school districts are in a constant cycle and analyzing and updating.

“When our folks are out in the field talking to educators, the number one thing they hear is a need for time. Time to look at these standards, digest them, and put them into practice,” Fergus said.

And when it comes to the PARCC exam, some districts have requested that the test be delayed or eliminated for certain grade levels.

Some administrators also say because the Common Core wave is unfolding rather quickly, it’s been a scramble to find enough instructional materials.

Despite the challenges, Fergus says their feedback suggests that most teachers are in a good position to apply these new standards in the classroom. She points to a survey that was conducted last year.

“We found that nearly 85-percent of teachers in Illinois feel prepared to implement the new standards,” Fergus said.

And unless changes are made, educators will soon find out just how much progress they’ve made when testing comes on board in the spring.