Sunday Nov 2nd, 2014

Common Core Math Can Be a Mystery

Common Core math can be a mystery, and parents are going to school to understand it

By Lyndsey Layton [Washington Post]

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Jennifer Craig stared at her daughter’s fifth-grade math homework. It was a three-digit multiplication problem, and it seemed simple enough. But her 10-year-old was supposed to solve it by drawing a chart, breaking apart numbers, multiplying, adding and maybe more.

“I’m lost,” said Craig, a 31-year-old stay at home mother of three.

And that’s how she found herself in her daughter’s classroom Monday night, sitting alongside other parents in child-size chairs and listening as teacher Alyshia Thomas explained new math strategies.

Most U.S. public school students are learning math very differently than their parents did, due to Common Core State Standards, national K-12 math and reading benchmarks that have been adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia.

The changes have confused many parents — particularly at the elementary level — leaving them flustered by a basic parental duty: Helping with homework.

“Almost every parent comes in and says, ‘This is not how I learned math,’ ” said Melissa Palermo, an energetic fourth-grade teacher who coaches other teachers in math at the Nathaniel Hawthorne school here.

Palermo is a believer in the Common Core, a wholesale and controversial change in American public education, because she says her students are reaping the benefits of the new standards. They are showing a more sophisticated understanding of math and are able to perform operations they otherwise wouldn’t have learned until they were older, she said.

But parents are another matter.

“The toughest part is the homework part because parents, it’s so hard for them,” Palermo said. “A lot of parents, they doubt themselves because there are all these models and things they’ve never seen before.”

Rochester is one of many school districts across the country teaching parents the new Common Core math in addition to their children. From New York to California, school districts are holding special math sessions for parents and caregivers, sending home “cheat sheets” and offering homework hotlines answered by math teachers, all in an effort to explain and demystify the new approach.

“The kids who come to us are a clean slate,” said Jennifer Patanella, an instructional coach with the Rochester public schools. “It’s the adults who have to be retrained.”

In Las Vegas, Bill Hanlon is teaching a five-month course in new math strategies to a group of approximately 50 parents.

In this Khan Academy video, instructors show how a multiplication problem can be solved via the traditional method and the area model method. The area model, which has students break numbers down into groups on graph paper, is one of the new ways students are learning math, which can be confusing to parents who learned the traditional method years ago. School systems are beginning to offer lessons that teach parents the new methods alongside their children so that they can help with homework, part of the introduction of new curriculum related to the Common Core State Standards. The video explains the steps used in each method. Video courtesy of Khan Academy at

“They’re a little frustrated because they can’t help their kids,” said Hanlon, who directs professional development for math teachers in five Nevada school districts. “One of the messages I give to teachers is that if you’re going to send home stuff that parents have not seen before, send a note explaining, this is what we’re doing and why and a couple of examples. Otherwise, you’re going to get a lot of complaining.”

Diane Dunaskiss, principal of the Pine Tree Elementary School in Lake Orion, Mich., about 40 miles from Detroit, has been looking for ways to make Common Core math relevant to her students and their parents.

Two weeks ago, her school hosted a Common Core math night for families the local Kroger’s supermarket. Children and adults were given everyday challenges requiring math operations, such as figuring out how many boxes of pasta to buy for a dinner for six if each box contains four servings.

“The new math standards are encouraging students to think deeper,” Dunaskiss said. “Part of that deeper understanding is to take what you’ve learned and apply it to what you’re doing in real life.”

A bipartisan group of governors and state education chiefs created the Common Core State Standards in math and reading in 2010 as a way to inject consistency into K-12 academic standards, which have varied wildly from state to state. The standards spell out the skills and knowledge students should possess by the end of each grade. They are not curriculum — states and school districts decide how to teach to the standards and what materials to use.

In the past, math was learned as a series of memorized facts, formulas and shortcuts or tricks. The result, experts say, is that U.S. students struggle with math. Nearly two out of every three U.S. fourth-graders and eighth-graders were not proficient on recent national math tests. The Common Core standards differ from that previous approach in that they emphasize the concepts behind mathematical operations and stress that there are multiple ways to arrive at the same answer.

In primary grades, math instruction begins with “manipulatives,” such as blocks or beads, and progresses to drawings, number lines or graphical groupings. The idea is to teach children to think about a number as more than just a symbol. The Common Core standards expect students to not just calculate the answer but to explain how they arrived at the solution. Word problems are heavily used, and that has raised concerns by some that Common Core math is particularly hard for English language learners and students with learning disabilities.

Despite the fast and widespread adoption of the Common Core standards, opposition has been growing from critics across the political spectrum. Some of that outcry has been fueled by classroom materials that are poorly designed and confusing.

In St. Tammany Parish, La., the school board voted on Oct. 9 to ditch Eureka Math by next school year after parents complained that it is overly complex. Board members, many of whom generally oppose the Common Core standards, made the move over the objections of some teachers who argued that the curriculum was worth keeping. U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), also voiced concern, asking the state education department to stop recommending that districts use Eureka Math.

Lynne Munson, executive director of Common Core Inc., the nonprofit organization that created Eureka Math, said there have been “extraordinary stories of success” in Louisiana and elsewhere.

It would be a “terrible disservice” if school districts stopped using Eureka Math, Munson said. About 15,000 people have downloaded a free version of Eureka Math from Common Core Inc.’s Web site, and the organization has trained about 7,000 teachers to teach the curriculum, she said.

Because the rollout of the Common Core has been fast — the standards were written just four years ago and publishers have been rushing to develop classroom materials — many say the quality teaching materials, worksheets and homework is uneven.

In April, comedian Stephen Colbert ripped into an example of a math problem that had lit up the Web after it was posted on Facebook by a frustrated North Carolina father. The homework problem showed a horizontal number line with a series of half domes scribbled on top and said “Jack used a number line below to solve 427-316. Find his error. Then write a letter to Jack explaining what he did right and what he should do to fix his mistake.”

“That’s a great question. It teaches two important workplace skills: math and passive- ­aggressive note-writing,” Colbert quipped. “That word problem couldn’t be easier to solve. All you have to do is check the semi-circles on the two-sided arrow, put the numbers up in it and bing, bang, math. It’s the same thing I do when I get a check in a restaurant. Draw a bunch of shapes and tell the waitress to find my error.”

The parent who posted the math problem, Jeff Severt, wrote the noterequired by the problem: “Dear Jack, Don’t feel bad. I have a bachelor of science degree in engineering which included extensive study in differential equations and other higher math applications. Even I cannot explain the Common Core mathematics approach, nor get the correct answer. In the real world, simplification is favored over complication.”

Then, he solved the problem using simple subtraction, which he said took less than five seconds, to come up with the answer: 111.

In Rochester, more than 200 parents, guardians and students showed up for the recent “Family Do the Math Night,” one of seven the district is holding this school year. The school district, where 84 percent of the 30,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, offered free dinner and door prizes as an incentive.

“I’m not prepared for this. I’ve been out of school since ’77,” said Vivian Gambill, the mother of an eighth-grader. She said the event was helpful, but she remained baffled by some of the material. “I’m still having some struggling moments. But now I have some Web sites I can go to.”

Willie Howard, 65, sat in the cafeteria with his two granddaughters and followed the teacher’s directions to subtract 23 from 46 by drawing a series of circles. He understood the method but wasn’t entirely sold.

“I don’t know about this,” he said, considering all the circles he’d drawn. “There’s a whole lot more process to this. And kids, they get distracted easy. They say it’s better. But I don’t know.”

Think You Can Cheat on the SAT? The College Board Says Think Again

Security measures include air gaps, fake test takers, alarm doors, photo verification and handwriting samples

The SAT is never uploaded to the Internet. Test questions are never emailed. And even the computers that test creators use to write and edit the questions are never, ever connected to the web.

“The idea is that you can’t hack something that isn’t there,” said Ray Nicosia, the director of the Office of Testing Integrity at the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which oversees the security of the College Board’s SAT and SAT II subject area tests. Every year, those tests are administered at 25,000 test centers in 192 countries around the world.

Earlier this week, the College Board sent emails to all students living in China or Korea who had taken the SAT on October 11, informing them that their test scores would be reviewed and delayed for up to a month because of allegations of widespread cheating. It’s the latest in a long line of alleged and full-blown cheating scandals in the last few years that have involved not only the SATs, but nearly every other widely-administered standardized test, including Advance Placement tests, the ACTs, and English language qualifying exams.

“They’re always going to be people trying to challenge the system,” Nicosia said. “We stop a lot but there’s always someone trying new a way.” The advent of cell phones, tiny cameras and nearly undetectable recording devices, for example, has required his team to up their game, he said.

A quick search on YouTube reveals dozens of innovative cheating ideas, like scanning answers onto soft drink wrappers or printing formulas onto fabric, each complete with instructions on how to pull it off. One company sells an eraser that doubles as a microphone, designed to help sneaky individuals communicate with “helpers” up to 3,000 feet away.

In 2007, two students in China used tiny, wireless listening devices in their ear canals to cheat on an English exam; they were later hospitalized when the devices got stuck, according to China Daily. But, Nicosia said, those “James Bond tactics” are not as common as other, more run-of-the-mill cheating gambits. For example, in 2011, twenty students were arrested on Long Island, New York, for hiring other students—for a cool $3,600 bucks—to impersonate them in the SAT exam room.

Nicosia would not speak specifically about the allegations of cheating in the Oct. 11 test. But early speculation has focused on the possibility that the same test administered overseas on Oct. 11 had been administered previously in the U.S. ETS spokesman Thomas Ewing confirmed that ETS does reuse tests in different locations, though he would not comment on the Oct. 11 test.

Parke Muth, who volunteers as a consultant and advisor to Chinese students said he’s heard that test preparation companies will offer to pay test takers to memorize a half-dozen or so questions from a given test and write them down after they’ve left the testing area. “They do that a hundred times and they have the full test,” Muth said. He said he also heard allegations of students ripping out individual pages of a test booklet and smuggling it out of the test center.

Ewing didn’t seem too surprised by these suggestions. “The costs of test security have been steadily escalating over the years and ETS spends literally millions and millions of dollars in this area,” he said, adding that the Office of Testing Integrity, which Ray Nicosia has overseen since the mid-‘90s, has grown substantially. It now monitors every stage in the SAT and SAT II test-making and test-taking process—from the moment questions are written to the moment that students sit down to take the exam.

It’s a big job, made slightly easier by the fact that, unlike the ACT, which can now be taken on a computer in some locations, neither the SAT or the SAT II is available on any computer or digital device. Those exams must be taken instead with a good old-fashioned pencil and a paper booklet.

Still, Nicosia said, his oversight process doesn’t cut any corners. It begins in the College Board’s secure offices, which are patrolled by security guards who monitor suspicious vehicles in the area. Employees dealing directly with the test questions are required to use computers that are not, and never have been, connected to the Internet, and no part of the test, perhaps needless to say, is ever stored on the cloud. Test writers themselves are subject to background and criminal checks, and can have their briefcases and bags searched upon exiting the building to ensure that they are not transporting a thumb drive or other device containing information about the test’s content.

Once the test is written, it is moved in “a secure carrier,” Nicosia said, declining to elaborate, to a print shop that uses security protocols similar to companies that print casino vouchers, which can be exchanged for cash. “All our printers have alarm doors and security cameras and whole list of other things we mandate,” Nicosia said. “You don’t have a print shop employee just walking outside for a cigarette break.” At the end of the printing process, the SAT test booklets are “packaged in a certain way” so that tampering with the booklets themselves is either impossible or immediately obvious, he said.

From there, the test booklets are delivered to pre-vetted test administrators and school principals, who have gone thorough an ETS training and who must, in turn, provide ETS with assurance that the tests will be kept in a locked and secured location. In some instances, ETS has arranged to have the test booklets hand-delivered by a ETS employee on the day of the test.

On test day, a host of precautions are also in place. For example, ETS requires test takers to upload a photo of themselves when they register for the exam and then provide on test day a photo ID that matches both their registration photograph and their appearance. Test takers are also required to provide a handwriting sample that can be used should any subsequent investigation be necessary.

In most locations, ETS does not search students for cell phones or other digital devices, but if a proctor sees or hears a digital device, the student is immediately dismissed from the test, his scores are canceled, and a review is launched. In areas where cheating is suspected, ETS also sometimes deploys undercover investigators—employees in their late teens or early twenties who pretend to be test-takers—in order to “get the birds’ eye view of what’s going on without raising any eyebrows,” Nicosia said. At the end of tests, students are required to leave all testing materials behind.

All told, while the extent of cheating efforts is probably “extremely overblown in people’s imaginations,” Nicosia said his team takes every tip, allegation or rumor “very, very seriously.” “Whatever challenge is next, we’re looking for it,” he said.

Additional Headlines from November 2nd