The new Common Core standards have changed the classroom for the better, writes Lynnwood elementary-school teacher Tom White.

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As scores from the new Smarter Balanced exams roll out, many parents may be confused about how to read them. This is to be expected, but just as I take pride in teaching my students, I understand that I also have a responsibility to their parents. And because of this, I want to help parents understand this new process.

As parents are aware, Washington state has been transitioning to Common Core standards for a few years now. This hasn’t always been an easy transition, but we are well on our way to helping all of our students reach their full academic potential by better preparing them for college and a 21st-century career. Throughout this transition, we teachers have had to change some of our methods to better fit the new, more robust standards.

Despite some bumps along the way, Common Core has changed so many things in the classroom for the better. For the first time, we have high-quality standards that are clear, concise and consistent with other states.

Before the Common Core, we had no way of accurately measuring how our students here in Washington were doing compared with students in other states. It is important that we can make these comparisons because students will be competing against those in other states for college admission slots and jobs.

Prior to the 1990s, schools in Washington state did not have curriculum standards, and the materials and resources we used were based on what the large states of New York, Texas and California were doing. That began to change when individual states began developing their own standards. The assessments used to measure students’ academic achievements, however, were not really aligned to what we were teaching but rather a generic curriculum of what test writers assumed was being taught. This, unfortunately, led to “teaching to the test” to ensure that students earned high scores.

But what we couldn’t measure was whether students were really learning.

A recent conversation I had with a student’s mother drove this point for me. The parent told me that while her daughter did very well on her report card, she was concerned and did not know how to interpret her scores from the Smarter Balanced assessment, which showed her daughter as meeting the standards in English Language Arts but not in math.

Michael Osbun / Op Art
Michael Osbun / Op Art

It is this confusion that I hope to clarify. Meeting the standards means that a student is performing at grade-level, for example, fourth graders who read at a fourth-grade level. A score showing that students have not met the standards indicates that the student is struggling to perform grade-level tasks. This indicator tells parents and teachers sooner rather than later just where students are having trouble so that we can make course-corrections.

The “sooner” part of this is critical so that we are assured that students have mastered what they need to learn in each grade before advancing to the next. After this first transition year with the Smarter Balanced tests, educators, parents and students will get results much earlier than in the past. To be very clear, this does not mean holding students back; rather, it means that we receive information from the tests more quickly so that we can provide extra help during the school year.

The Smarter Balanced assessment is a test worth taking. It asks students to show what they have learned, not just what they have memorized. In this way, we are meeting the promise of the Common Core, which is to promote academic excellence to all students to give them the best opportunities for success in their lives.

Tom White has been a teacher in Lynnwood for 24 years. He currently teaches fourth grade.