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Aquino Sees Deeper Thinking but Falling Scores with Common Core

Brenda Iasevoli | August 14, 2013

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Jaime Aquino

Jaime Aquino

Five years ago, as Jaime Aquino was leaving his post as chief academic officer of Denver public schools, a reporter asked him his thoughts on how to improve public education. His response: national standards, coupled with national assessments.

But Aquino told the reporter, “I will never see this in my lifetime.’”

Fast forward to 2013. Aquino is now the deputy superintendent of instruction for Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the country. Another school has started this week, and it’s shattering his prediction of years ago.

In LA Unified’s administrative hierarchy, Aquino is responsible for training 28,000 teachers on how to implement the Common Core Standards, the new teaching regimen that 45 states and the District of Columbia are adopting — in LA Unified’s case, with iPads. The standards prescribe what students in kindergarten through 12th grade are expected to learn and how they’re going to learn it.

And all across the country, educators and politicians have sounded the alarm: the new standards are tough, and test scores — previously based on each state’s individual testing protocols — are sure to plummet.

“I’m not a gambler, “ Aquino says now, “but I am willing to gamble my entire pension that come 2015 our scores will go down.”

Yet Aquino is undaunted. “Test scores will decrease, not because the students are learning less,” he says, “but because the definition of proficiency has changed.”

Aquino cites a disparity among state standards that he noticed when serving as deputy superintendent in Hartford, Connecticut from 1999 to 2001. Students who passed the Connecticut Mastery test were deemed proficient as a matter of course. Yet had they moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, a 30-minute drive from Hartford, they would have fallen behind when tested against Massachusetts’ more rigorous standards. The expectations were lower, Aquino noted, depending on where students lived.

“I kept saying that in Hartford, we were lying,” Aquino said. “We were saying, ‘Yes, you’re proficient, but God forbid you should ever move to Massachusetts.’”

Now, nearly all U.S. students will be held to the same standards as the United States begins facing down the persistent poor showings of American students in international assessments. In language arts, the Common Core standards emphasize reading informational texts as opposed to literature. These kinds of readings, the thinking goes, will better prepare students for college and the workforce, where they are more likely to encounter texts that dispense information, whether scientific, historical or technical.

In fact, according to Common Core standards, by the time they reach high school, students should be reading 70 percent informational texts and only 30 percent literature. The emphasis is more on supporting answers by providing evidence from the text, and less on sharing opinions.

As for the math standards, parents may be surprised that their kids have one or two problems to solve for homework, instead of 30. The difference, Aquino explains, is that students will have to write an explanation of how they solved the problems. This way, they demonstrate understanding of the concepts, instead of going through the motions of solving a bunch of problems.

Aquino calls the U.S. an “answer-getting culture.” We provide students with “quick tricks” for finding correct answers, rather than tools for critical thinking to help them understand the concepts.  Aquino points to an example of how multiple-choice tests force teachers into providing these quick tricks, simply to increase students’ odds of choosing the correct answer.

“We say to students, ‘If you’re multiplying two numbers, the product is always going to be greater than both numbers,’ ” he explains. “That is always true, except if you’re multiplying a number times a decimal. Students rely on this trick so much that they don’t even multiply. They just look for the answers that are greater.”

Aquino thinks we need to teach math as they do in places like Japan and Hong Kong. He says Hong Kong covers only 40 percent of the topics in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), an assessment given to fourth and eighth-grade students in more than 60 countries, including the U.S.

Students in Hong Kong, according to Aquino, perform much better than their American counterparts, who cover 80 percent of the topics. The difference is that, in Hong Kong, teachers stress mathematical knowledge over answers.

“We need to change the way we train teachers in this country,” Aquino says, and for now, he is attempting to do just that in Los Angeles: He’s changing the way teachers teach to change the way students learn. In time, he says, the efforts will boost test scores, too.

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