Pittsburgh school standards will require a major curriculum overhaul

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Common Core State Standards, which are being phased in at schools across the country, are going to require major shifts in the math and English language arts curricula in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The changes are so significant that the reading level now required in 10th grade will be required of eighth-graders. Sixth-grade math already this year was moved down to fifth-grade.

Preparing students to meet the standards will be the responsibility of teachers in all core subject areas, such as science teachers who will be trained to teach students to do science writing.

"It really ratchets up the rigor," chief academic officer Jerri Lynn Lippert told the school board at an education committee meeting Wednesday night.

In Pennsylvania, the first statewide tests -- known as Keystone Exams -- to be based on the new standards will be given this school year in three high school subjects: algebra 1, literature and biology.

In future years, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests given in grades 3-8 in reading and math will be aligned with the new standards instead of the old state academic standards.

In general, the new standards are aimed at teaching fewer concepts at a deeper level than the old standards, which covered a wider array of topics but in a more shallow manner.

Kentucky was the first state to base its state tests on Common Core. Results from 2011-12 tests showed that the percentage of students scoring proficient dropped by a third or more in elementary and middle school compared with the old test.

Ms. Lippert expects Pittsburgh students will experience a similar decline because of the increased difficulty of the new standards.

Board president Sherry Hazuda wondered: "The kids who are struggling now -- if we're going to raise expectations, how are they going to do it?"

Ms. Lippert said there will need to be more differentiated instruction -- teaching to different levels of need within the same classroom -- and more deliberate intervention when students don't reach mastery.

She said classrooms in which the Common Core is being taught well will be ones in which the students are highly engaged rather than learning passively.

Some of the significant work that must be done in literacy includes increasing the amount of informational text students read, increasing the use of text to build knowledge of the disciplines and writing from sources to inform or make an argument.

In math, students will move from mastery of one topic to mastery of another rather than covering the same topic in less depth repeatedly. In fifth-grade math, for example, the number of units is reduced from 14 to six.

Ms. Lippert said the changes will be made without replacing most of the materials. She said the district so far has spent about $500,000 to $750,000 on new math materials and also has purchased a small number of novels to meet the reading level needs.

She said the district won't replace the elementary reading curriculum -- which would take millions of dollars -- but instead will fill in gaps, such as buying new novels where needed to provide the appropriate reading level.

In Pittsburgh, the Keystone Exams will be taken by this year's 11th-graders in literature and biology in December and algebra in January.

In addition, 10th-graders will take biology in December and algebra 1 in January. Ninth-graders who have taken algebra 1 will take the Keystone Exam in that subject in January.

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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