Common Core | Feature

5 Tips for Explaining Common Core to Parents

In many schools and districts, October and November are filled with parent-teacher conferences. Teachers across the nation meet with parents during early-release days and evening sessions to discuss each student’s progress and successes. This year, many schools and teachers are facing a new, difficult topic to discuss with parents: Common Core Assessment results.

The states that have started to implement Common Core Assessments, such as New York, Minnesota, and Kentucky, have experienced dramatic drops in proficiency rates. New York, for example, went from a statewide reading proficiency rate of 55.1% in 2012 to a statewide proficiency rate of 31.3% in 2013 following the implementation of the Common Core Assessments.

To make matters worse, most parents and community members are confused about the Common Core Standards and their purpose in education. The 45th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll on the Public’s Attitudes Towards Public Schools revealed that 62% of Americans have never even heard of the new standards. Even worse, most of those who have heard of the standards harbor a number of misconceptions about them. According to the Gallup poll, the most common misconceptions are the following: thinking Common Core Standards are federally mandated, thinking they are a “mash-up” of all the states' standards, and thinking that the standards are telling educators how to teach.  This leaves teachers and administrators to explain decreasing achievement rates to many parents who don’t fully understand the process. This can be a difficult and emotional situation for both educators and parents.

Handling this situation effectively and calmly requires two things: 1) a clear understanding of why the scores have decreased; and 2) specific strategies to explain the Common Core assessment shifts to the community.

Why Scores Have Decreased

Scores have decreased because of test-format transfer. Any time the format of a test changes, scores tend to decrease across the board. The new Common Core Assessments are administered via computer, a format change for many states, which contributes to decreased achievement scores. Digital assessments are increasing in popularity, and it’s unlikely that this trend will reverse itself. Using other digital assessment in the classroom all year can minimize the effects of test-format transfer on students. but for this year, the new format is likely having an impact on the Common Core Assessment results.

Scores have also decreased because Common Core Standards and Common Core Assessments are more rigorous than most existing state achievement exams. Nationally speaking, the Common Core Standards are more difficult than many pre-existing state standard documents. Reading-level requirements are more rigorous for most states, and some math content is introduced at earlier grade levels. Although this may seem unfair at first glance, the heightened rigor is necessary to better prepare students for college and careers. Students spend more than 5.6 billion dollars on remedial college courses each year in the United States. Further, modern employers need graduates to be equipped with higher-order thinking skills, effective writing skills, and insightful research skills.

It’s likely that a complete transition to the Common Core Standards and the Common Core Assessments will take a number of years. In a recent Education Week article, Kentucky’s Education Commissioner Terry Holliday stated that the shift will take “about five years to see an overall growth of significance at all levels.”

Explaining to the Community

Of course, teachers and leaders don’t have five years to wait before explaining to parents the fundamental changes that come with Common Core. Here are five ways educators can communicate this message effectively:

Listen first. Parents may often feel concerned or emotional when they hear that their child’s performance has decreased. Stakeholders may feel concerned about the status of their community when they hear about the deflated scores. It’s important for parents and community members to voice their feelings and worries about this topic. Listen to their concerns, noting any misconceptions or misinformation that they may have heard. Be sure to respond to their needs specifically. Being a good listener helps you build trust that can facilitate the rest of the conversation.

Explain the role of the Common Core Standards at your school. Share the exciting things that are happening in your school because of Common Core. Some parents and community members believe that the standards dictate what teachers should teach each day. Help stakeholders to see that the Common Core Standards are not a recipe. Instead, they are an opportunity for students to experience many different types of learning activities that will prepare them for college and careers.

Pass along information about student progress first, then share achievement data. When you begin talking about student progress, help parents and community members to see how children have improved or changed since last year. For example, have children increased their reading levels? Has the length and sophistication of their writing increased? Are more students taking advanced math courses? Beginning with this type of formative, year-over-year information can help everyone understand that achievement is visible via many methods, not just a single achievement score.

Share comparative data across the nation to give parents a national perspective. As you go over a child’s score or school scores on the Common Core Assessment, you may want to also provide national averages from other states that are making the shift. (This resource from EngageNY is a good example.) Providing this information can help parents and community members to understand that this is a national trend, not a problem in a specific state, district, or school.

Share sample questions. Help parents and community members to understand the types of questions and problems that students are asked to solve on the new assessments. Visit the PARCC or Smarter Balanced websites to download sample questions to show to parents. It can also be helpful to put new assessment questions next to old assessment questions so everyone can directly observe the shift.

Every conversation about student achievement is an important one. By being prepared and empathetic when talking about the exciting changes related to Common Core, you can remind parents and the community that you all share the same goal: to better prepare students for an ever-changing world.


About the Author

Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson) is a learner, leader, and teacher. She is a the senior educational technology leader for BrightBytes and a founder of the Edcamp movement. Swanson is also author of “Professional Learning in the Digital Age,” and “Teaching the Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards.”