Common Core Math: Unpacking Standards 8th Grade Math
Common Core Math: Unpacking Standards 8th Grade Math

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Students at Kent Innovation High School are receiving a more relevant learning experience that’s based on teaching, engaging them in critical thinking and encouraging communication and collaboration, leaders say.

Principal Kym Kimber said those are the common threads of new standards geared toward developing students’ skills for English language arts and mathematics in a way that aims to prepare them for college and working in a global economy.

This spring, Michigan students will be assessed for the first time on the Common Core State Standards as well as their peers in 42 other states. While there are varying opinions on whether the changes in teaching structure will benefit schools and families, many West Michigan districts began embedding the standards in their curriculum in 2011.

The Michigan Department of Education adopted Common Core in 2010 surviving push back last school year.

Related: West Michigan educators react to Senate funding implementation of Common Core standards

“We started right away wrapping our projects around the new standards, so really our students don’t know any different,” said Kimber about the school that launched in 2011 as an incubator of new teaching ideas for the 20 Kent Intermediate School Districts, emphasizing project-based learning tied to real-world scenarios.

The standards outline what math and English skills students should know at each grade, and are designed to develop more critical thinking skills by challenging students to demonstrate their knowledge of concepts, not just regurgitate facts or plug in a formula.

Fourth grade teacher Nicole McKernan helps Yaitza Lopezmendez at Congress Elementary School in Grand Rapids on Oct. 2, 2013.

“I have been immersed in Common Core since day one,” said Kent Innovation English teacher Elaine Shalla, who was certified in 2010. “The biggest shift with the Common Core is just the skills base and teaching the skills for students to be independent thinkers and collaborators.’’

The school of 360 students now serves students in grades nine to 12, after adding a grade each year. Students start their day at the school, based on the Kent Intermediate School District campus on East Beltline Avenue NE, engaged in project-based learning for their core classes such before returning to their home schools.

“Working and collaborating with other teachers, regardless if you are 20-year veteran or a two-year teacher, is going to help you become better at teaching or implementing the standards because you’ve got the new ideas that are coming out and then you’ve got the veteran that has the other ways that have worked well, too,” Shalla said.

She said anything that schools can do to support that collaborative environment will be “huge” in the success of teachers and their students.

There is confusion and frustration now about the upcoming tests that will assess students’ knowledge. New testing was slated to replace the state standardized exam – the Michigan Educational Assessment Program – that does not meet current state standards.

For four years, Michigan was poised to use the Smarter Balanced exams aligned with the Common Core as the companion tests to the standards this coming spring ,but lawmakers decided against that move earlier this year. Last year, there was a showdown over whether to keep Common Core.

The MDE was directed to develop a new assessment for the standards described in the budget as the “new MEAP.” The department is also pursuing proposals to determine the assessment for 2015-16. Teacher evaluations are tied, in part, to student achievement.

Related: Michigan Legislature throws out the Smarter Balanced test for ‘new MEAP’

There is uncertainty about how meaningful the MDE assessment will be, given the time allotted as well as the fact there won’t be exact consistency in the exams the first two years used.

“Whatever assessment they land on, the question will be can we actually use the data,” said East Grand Rapids Superintendent Sara Shubel. “As educators, we need to be able to draw valid inferences from the assessment each year to be able to drive instruction. What are the learning gaps? What did we do successfully?”

She said districts like EGR have already been doing the work as it relates to instruction, curriculum and professional development training.

Kent ISD has been assisting local districts with preparation for Common Core since 2010.

Rockford Superintendent Mike Shibler said he is not confident right now about the data being meaningful. He said the decision was a mistake by “lawmakers who have no experience or training in teaching and learning.”

“To develop a test that is reliable and valid takes several years,” he said, about MDE creating an assessment in less than a year. “The Smarter Balanced was already aligned with the Common Core.“

Carolyn Evans, chief academic officer for Grand Rapids schools, said when you are making changes that affect students, you have to be careful.

“All kids can meet the targets, if they are clear and they have the proper supports.”

Wyoming High School Middle College student Max Kallemeyn, 17, works on an assignment in his Grand Rapids Community College social problems class September 24, 2014.

Parents have been sorting through the myths and facts surrounding Common Core, deemed by many educators as an important educational reform. Critics question the academic benefit and feel this is a national education takeover with privacy implications.

Related: Charter school board president’s resignation over Common Core has social media abuzz

“I think there is a benefit to everyone being on the same page by having a common set of standards,” said Rockford parent Christie Ramsey, who is also parent chair for the Friends of Kent County Schools. “The uncertainty about what they are assessing this spring and the tests in the future is where the frustration is arising ”

In July, Joseph Martineau, deputy superintendent for accountability services at MDE, issued memo telling teachers and school staff that “they should continue with the lesson lesson plans they have been preparing over the past few years, to ready students for a more rigorous assessment that will measure Michigan’s current standards.”

That’s what’s happening at Kent Innovation. Walk through the building on any given day and students are engaged. Kimber says they have created culture that empowers learning that is further supported by 21st century technology and collaborative learning spaces.

In a biology class, students were being asked to think of something they were interested in or cared about. Can you make a periodic table of it? What would its elements be and how would it be organized? Down the hall, a half dozen students gathered in one those collaborative spaces to discuss a mock court case on drug testing high school athletes for their integrated English and civics class.

“Common Core challenges students to be individuals and independent thinkers,” Shalla said. “I think it definitely prepares them for the real world.”

Monica Scott is the Grand Rapids K-12 education writer. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @MScottGR or Facebook

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