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Common Core Standards and Proficiency Based Education

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The best curriculum for schools to adapt has been debated for years. As students change with time so does the way they learn. Over recent years Common Core and Proficiency Based curriculums have been at the forefront of many discussions. They both have strong proponents, are different in a few ways, but surprisingly similar in many others.

In 2006 Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who was chair of the National Governors Association at the time, wrote her initiative with a strong focus on improving math and science education. She felt America did not have a competitive education system. She created a task force, and Common Core State Standards were born. This prompted the development of standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics. Proponents of the Common Core chose to pursue a state-led initiative for fear they would receive opposition from the public regarding federal involvement in education. The objective of Common Core is to provide a high standard of education that is interchangeable from state to state. Nearly every state was onboard by 2010. Today many states still have the Common Core Standards in place; many other states have made a show of throwing them out, then re-installing them under some new name (Greene).

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Common Core State Standards are standards each student is expected to learn at each grade level. For example, a Common Core math standard for first grade is that students should be able to add and subtract within 20 by the end of the school year. A Common Core ELA standard is that students should be able to decode one-syllable words by the end of first grade (Lee). The standards push students to work with more complex texts and formal writing. Papers are written requiring evidence instead of personal experience. Reading is focused more towards nonfiction. There are fewer math concepts and those concepts are used to build on one another. Students are also required to show an understanding of each concept, proving how they received the right answer and why it’s correct. The goal of these standards is to make sure students receive a strong education, can be measured equally against their peers, and have the skills to succeed in college and the workforce.

Common Core has struggled when it comes to Special Education. The standards do not take into account children who are on Individualized Education Plans or IEPs. These children are typically working below their grade level and at a much slower pace. It is impossible for many of them to reach every standard by the end of a school year. Many educators feel the program doesn’t recognize the individual needs of the student. A few educators like Lindsay Jones disagree. Jones said that in the past, without those higher expectations, there had been a “huge underachievement problem in special education” (Fairbanks). Many parents are also upset over the end of year assessment testing. It is not mandatory and does not affect rather the student passes or fails, even so many parents have chose to have their child opt out.

Common Core testing has pushed many state assessments to become more ambitious. Assessments focus more on preparing the student for college and a career. The fact that these common performance levels are shared by multiple states means that for the first time at this scale, states are able to compare individual student results. This is an important advance for educational equity; in the past, states set different performance levels, some higher than others, in effect establishing different targets for what level of academic achievement was expected of students and exacerbating the problem of disparities by zip code (Slover, Muldoon). Input from educators helped to make sure the assessments lined up with classroom curriculum. The assessments also put a focus on evidence-based writing, which gives students opportunity to build that critical skill. Common Core also made a push for online testing. This allows for more efficient testing and saves time on scoring.

The Common Core grading system is designed to be a 1-4 scale. A three would signify the student is meeting the standard. This new grading system forced a change in the way report cards look, no longer using the 0-100 scoring. Many teachers feel the new system is confusing, and parents have a hard time understanding exactly how their child is doing in school. Many states have taken liberty with the new grading system. Some moved to the new 1-4 scale, others chose to use a letter system: E for exceeds, M for meets, P for progressing, and N for needs improvement (@DreamBox_Learn). Then there were the states who refused to adapt the new system or only used it through elementary school, reverting back to the 0-100 scoring for grades 6-12. This has caused complications for Common Core. How can a curriculum be universal if grading is different everywhere you go?

Proficiency Based Education has become a rising trend in many states and districts. The idea is to provide more flexible and relevant learning curriculums. Students are able to progress after mastering content and concepts, no longer using credits. Students receive support based on their individual needs. Many states are attempting or are already on the proficiency bandwagon in some form. Maine attempted to implement Proficiency Based Education in 2012, only to have proficiency requirements eliminated in the summer of 2018 (Barshay).

Proficiency Based Education focuses on learning standards that are organized by subject area. The standards are set based on grade level. Each standard maps out the progression students are supposed to make through their school career. The basic idea is to make sure that students are learning age-appropriate material (knowledge and skills that are neither too advanced nor too rudimentary), and that teachers are sequencing learning effectively or avoiding the inadvertent repetition of material that was taught in earlier grades (Great Schools Partnership). For the most part the standards are the same from state to state. The standards provide consistency, quality control, accountability, pacing, and learning expectations.

Proficiency Based Education has faced a lot of fire when it comes to special education. Teachers and parents have questioned how students on IEPs are supposed to progress when some of the standards are unobtainable for them. There is no alternative plan for students in special education. If they can’t meet the standards then there won’t be any diploma. Proponents of Proficiency Based Education have suggested giving these students a Certificate of Participation instead; this has not set well with many parents.

Proficiency Based Education moves the focus away from testing, using projects as a way to gage progress. Many practicing schools have eliminated finals and midterms. This has caused a split in opinion among many educators. Some are afraid students will no longer be prepared to meet deadlines or take tests like the SAT. Students are able to re-do until they get it right, possibly causing poor study skills to develop. The University of Maine at Presque Isle has adopted pieces of proficiency-based education on its own campus. University President Raymond Rice says he feels the testing issue has cast doubts in some districts and has been a stumbling block in implementing the reforms (Feinberg). Others feel moving away from standard testing is a positive move for students. It removes the pressure of passing and allows the student to just focus on learning.

Proficiency Based Education uses a 1-4 grading score. A one would mean the student has very little understanding, while a four would show the student is highly proficient in the subject matter. At the beginning of a school year most students would have twos on their report card, showing they are working towards proficiency. A two doesn’t mean failure only that the student is learning and progressing. Many parents have a difficult time understanding this concept. The four-point system has also affected honor roll, class rankings, and qualifying for scholarships. This has influenced many schools to revert back to the 0-100 scoring system.

Common Core and Proficiency Based Education have a few distinct differences but at the core they are very similar. While many have very strong opinions on which one is better ultimately they seek to reach the same goals. Both curriculums need to adapt to students in special education by providing standards that are realistic for the program. It would be nice if proponents of both curriculums could work together toward creating one fluid universal program.


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