Getting a head start

<p>Second-grade students at McNary Heights Elementary School practice math skills Wednesday that will be required under the new Common Core State Standards.</p>

When the state-wide school report cards were released a few weeks ago, many parents and community members in Umatilla may have been alarmed when they saw the scores received by two of the three schools in the Umatilla School District.

The district raked in below-average ratings at McNary Heights Elementary School and Clara Brownell Middle School when compared with other schools that have similar student demographics. Umatilla High School brought in an average rating when compared with similar schools.

Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe said the ratings, however, do not present an accurate reflection of the student progress at each of the schools because they were being tested on current Oregon education standards that the district is no longer implementing.

Sipe said the Oregon State Board Education adopted the Common Core State Standards in October 2010, which all of the school districts in the state will have to implement by next year. In the spring of 2015, all school districts will take a new standardized test, the Smarter Balanced test, which is based on the common core standards. Currently, students have to take the OAKS?exam, which tests on the current state standards.

Because the Common Core State Standards are much more rigorous than the current standards, Sipe said the Umatilla School District received the state’s consent to implement the new standards early. Students, however, still have to take the OAKS, for the time being, which is why their scores are reflecting so poorly, Sipe said.

Sipe said given the Umatilla School District’s socioeconomic and language diversity, officials knew they were going to need more time to adjust to the new standards.

“Our kids need time to really focus in on things before they can necessarily feel like they have mastered it,” she said.

Sipe said during the 2010-11 school year administrators and teachers spent a lot of time studying and trying to understand how the Common Core State Standards were different than current education standards. She said teachers watched instructional videos from an organization called Engage NY about how to implement the new curriculum that would support the new standards. Teachers also practiced teaching the new curriculum to one another to ensure fluidity when they taught it to the students.

Sipe said kindergarteners have easily learned the common core standards. Middle school students also made the switch without too much trouble.

“It was far different, but they had enough mathematics background, and math has really where the challenge has been,” she said.

Sipe said third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, however, have really struggled because the difference between the new standards and the old are significant, especially in math.

“It is really difficult to explain to people how they are different because it is the vocabulary, it is the grade levels,” she said. “Everything is just so different.”

Sipe said the main difference between the two standards is that common core requires a deeper level of thinking and critical thinking skills. When being tested on the common core standards, students must demonstrate a greater knowledge of vocabulary when reading and writing and must be able to “deep read” — the ability examine and infer details from the text to support arguments for answers on the assessment.

To give an example of the standards’difficulty, Sipe said kindergarten students may now be asked to name how many vertices a shape has instead of the number of corners, which is a question that used to be asked at the fifth-grade level.

“A lot of this is just vocabulary,” she said. “If we talk corners, it is easy. It is just the idea of getting kids to understand the mathematical vocab early on so it becomes second nature to them. Because otherwise, it sounds intimidating.”

Sipe said the whole process of transitioning to the new standards has been pretty rough.

Sipe said schools within the district have had to make drastic curriculum changes to meet the new standards.

“I don’t want to pretend like it was an easy thing because it wasn’t,” she said. “It is really hard. Our kids are getting better, but this is still something that they are working their way through. I don’t want to in any way, shape or form make it sound like we have completely mastered all of the Common Core State Standards because that is completely not true.”

Sipe said the students are making tremendous progress, but they are not anywhere near where district officials would like them to be.

“But I am really pleased that we are ahead of where a lot of places will be starting off next year,” she said.

Sipe said the district has a number of programs and techniques in place to get students on par for the Smarter Balanced assessment by the time they have to take it.

She said at the elementary level, students are receiving individualized attention suitable to their learning and skill level. The district has also implemented a free preschool program that is available to all interested families in the area and a free jump start kindergarten program that gives new kindergarten students a few weeks of extra instruction prior to the first day of school.

Sipe said the district will also start a newly expanded after-school program in November that gives students exposure to a multitude of project-based classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She said more than 300 students are already signed up for the program.

At the middle school, Sipe said Principal Dianna Veleke has also implemented a school-wide word program called Word Generation. The program teaches students the vocabulary colleges have deemed students should know at that age. The words of the week are then reinforced during the students’ classes and in projects and lessons.

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