Montana parents may be in for a shock next year when the state's old No Child Left Behind tests are replaced by a new, more demanding test of students' math and reading skills that's lined up with the new Common Core standards.
“The Common Core raises the bar,” Casey Bertram, new principal of Hawthorne School, told Bozeman School Board trustees Tuesday during the annual lunch visit. “The Common Core is changing the face of education.”
Student scores that used to be considered “advanced” under Montana's standardized CRT tests will probably be rated as just “proficient” under the new Smarter Balance test, Bertram said. Scores that used to be good enough for “proficient” will likely be rated “below basic.”
“We have work to do,” Bertram said, adding that he wasn't bringing this up as a scare tactic, but “to light a fire. This is a big challenge we're all facing.”
Most states that have voluntarily adopted the Common Core curriculum standards are in the same boat, he said. National speakers have warned that educators should prepare their communities for a “perceived drop” in scores next year.
The Common Core aims to set out clearly what students should learn at each grade, emphasize skills and knowledge relevant to the real world, and better prepare students for careers, college and competing in the global economy.
Under the old CRT tests, Hawthorne students scored above state and school district averages, with 91 percent reading at grade level or better in 2013 and 84 percent doing math at grade level or higher. The school, in downtown Bozeman, has 340 students; 26 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because of low family income.
Bertram said when he came to Hawthorne, parents and teachers wondered if he would support the school's 22-year-old theme of incorporating the arts in all aspects of education. He said he believes “robust 21st century teaching cannot happen without the arts.”
Each year the school's arts sale raises tens of thousands of dollars, which pays for bringing in visiting artists. The school's other big fundraiser, its fall fun run, has raised up to $25,000 that will be used to buy computers and technology for the school. Technology, Bertram said, “is no longer a cool thing to do, it's something we must do.”
Hawthorne is putting great emphasis this year on having teachers meet each week in teams — as a first-grade team or second-grade team, for example — to work on new Common Core lessons and brainstorm ways to make sure all students understand.
It's a big cultural change for some teachers, used to working as isolated “islands,” Bertram said. But research has shown that teacher collaboration is “powerful,” he said.
He showed a video of three first-grade teachers planning a lesson on numbers, and then discussing how well students learned it. Two students who didn't get it got extra help the next day, playing a game with dice, to make sure they grasped the concepts.
“Those kids have zero opportunity to fail,” Bertram said, when three teachers are scrutinizing kids' progress and tackling problems the next day. “It decreases the likelihood kids will fall through the cracks.”
To free up teachers from classrooms so they can collaborate, Hawthorne has Montana State University education students take over classes, or hires substitutes with some of the $70,000 set aside by the school district. Bertram said it would be better if collaboration times were built into the master schedule.
Second-grade teachers Jamie Chapman and Diane Garrott said they like increased collaboration. “I think we're heading in the right direction and getting good results,” Garrott said.
The presentation won applause from the School Board.
“Casey came in hitting the ground running,” said Wendy Tage, board chair, whose children went to Hawthorne. “The collaboration is great. I'm glad he reiterated the arts are essential to education.”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.