As the first month of the new year ends, the Pleasanton school district is continuing to fully implement the new Common Core State Standards.

As stated on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, the standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career and life -- regardless of where they live.

"We in Pleasanton have been good at getting students college-accepted, but what our goal now is to take it to the other level ... college-accepted but really, truly college-ready," said Pleasanton special projects coordinator Lisa Hague.

The standards, adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia, are essentially benchmarks in mathematics and English language arts for what skills a student should have at each grade level.

While some praise the transition to Common Core, there are others who believe the standards are coming with challenges, such as the new teaching methods, the implementation process and worsening grades -- especially in mathematics, where school systems are seeing the biggest shift.

"The introduction of Common Core is overwhelming because it is just adding to the difficulty of these already hard classes," said Amador Valley High junior Pooja Kumar.

According to Kumar, during her Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus BC class, students sit with partners and collaborate.

"It is sometimes difficult because some students understand the material quicker but the majority of the students are confused," Kumar added.

That emphasis on collaboration is something new with the standards, according to Hague. "We sit, we talk, we bring new solutions to the table," she said.

District officials say they recognize that students, as well as parents, may be struggling with classwork or homework but urge them to be patient.

"It might take you a whole class period to figure out the whole problem's solution but we want to encourage that," said Nicole Steward, coordinator of communication and community engagement for the Pleasanton Unified School District (PUSD). "In the industry, you're not going to just get the answer. Your boss is going to say, 'Hey team, here's the problem. Get me a solution.'"

During a Common Core parent forum in November, representatives from Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) discussed the skills Fortune 500 companies are currently looking for in employees -- the top two being teamwork and problem solving, which helps explain the push for collaboration in Common Core learning.

"When you're working with different people, you're working with different levels of thinking ... you're getting new perspectives," said Odie Douglas, PUSD assistant superintendent of educational services.

Another aspect of Common Core where some students and parents struggle is the multiple mathematical methods being taught to come up with an answer. Parent critics argue that all these different strategies are making math way more complicated than it should be.

Hague agreed that this isn't "your mother's algebra," but she said Common Core aims to help students acquire a deeper understanding instead of teaching students to memorize a formula to get to the right answer.

"The process to get to the answer is equally important," she said.

The Common Core math standards identify eight mathematical practices that should be engaged in students K-12:

* Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them

* Reason abstractly and quantitatively

* Construct viable argument and critique the reasoning of others

* Model with mathematics

* Use appropriate tools strategically

* Attend to precision

* Look for and make use of structure

* Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

"These practices ask students to go deeper with mathematical understanding versus just utilizing a trick," Hague said.

Math instructional coach Duane Habecker compared the practices to a soccer game saying: "If you go and watch a soccer game with 6-year-olds and then 16-year-olds, they're going to be different -- the level is going to be different. But they're playing the same game with the same rules with the same concepts. But every year kids are in soccer ... they're gaining more skills, they're going in depth."

Steward recognized that this "deeper, deeper" concept is a challenge with current high schoolers, saying, "They haven't had that, and now they're just getting into the deep end."

Douglas added that most students are at Level 1 and 2 depth of knowledge levels according to Dr. Norman L. Webb's Depth of Knowledge Guide.

Depth of Knowledge Level 1 asks students questions such as:

* Can you recall ...?

* What is the formula for...?

* Can you identify...?

Depth of Knowledge Level 2 asks:

* Can you explain how ... affected ...?

* How would you summarize...?

* How would you compare ...? Contrast ...?

Hague said standardized assessments tested students in these levels of thinking, so "even if our students are being found proficient and advanced, it was in Levels 1 and 2."

"We're trying to push kids' thinking to Level 3 and 4," Douglas added.

Concepts on these two levels include:

* How would you adapt ... to create a different...?

* Can you predict the outcome if ...?

* What information can you gather to support your idea about...?

* Design and conduct an experiment. Gather information to develop alternative explanations for the results of an experiment.

* Apply information from one text to another text to develop a persuasive argument.

Common Core math content

"Our (California) standards were already pretty rigorous," Steward said. "So the Common Core standards are similar to the previous standards, almost word for word."

For example, in California Department of Education "Crosswalk" Analyses, a math standard in geometry stated, "Students use trigonometric functions to solve for an unknown length of a side of a right triangle, given an angle and a length of a side.

The Common Core standard aligned to it states, "Explain and use the relationship between the sine and cosine of complementary angles; use trigonometric ratios and the Pythagorean theorem to solve right triangles in applied problems."

Hague said some math standards have moved to different grade levels, such as operations and algebraic thinking found in California's old state standards for third grade now being partially found in Common Core standards for second grade.

"Yes, we have a lot to adjust to, but some states are seeing more significant shifts," she said.

Assessments

Along with students being asked to think more critically, assessments will also be aligning to Common Core, which includes the two higher levels of thinking.

California has adopted the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) -- officially named the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) -- to assess its students' academic performance.

Last spring, PUSD conducted a SBAC field test, a trial run focused on assessing the test-taking process for local students and teachers rather than tracking actual test results.

Twenty other states and the U.S. Virgin Islands conducted a field test for the SBAC as well.

ACOE provided data about the multi-state field test at the Common Core fair in January. The data showed 22% of 11th-graders scored at Level 3, which has been deemed "conditionally college-ready" by SBAC. The data also showed that 67% of 11th-graders were not college-ready, while 11% were college-ready.

This spring, Pleasanton students in third through eighth grades, as well as 11th-graders, will be taking the CAASPP during which their scores will count.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment System also includes interim assessments which provide districts information about a student's progress throughout the year as well as to assess Common Core.

Districts can choose when the interim assessments are conducted, such as every 30, 40 or 60 days. According to Steward, PUSD has determined not to administer them for this year.

"The interim assessments will not provide us information early enough to act upon given their anticipated release dates," she said. "In order to prepare our third through eighth and 11th-grade students for SBAC they will be taking a practice SBAC test and benchmark assessments in English language arts and math during the next few months. Upon release of the interim assessments we will analyze and determine their viability for the future."

The SAT -- used for college admissions -- will also be aligning to Common Core in 2016.

The new standards and upcoming tests have some local high schoolers and parents worried about lowering grades.

"My child is now failing in math when she used to be good at it. She doesn't even know if she'll be accepted to her top college choice," an unidentified Pleasanton parent said during November's Common Core parent forum.

District officials say they understand the frustration coming from students and parents but want them to realize this push is also coming from the colleges and universities.

In a letter addressed to the California State Board of Education -- the University of California, California State University, California Community College, and Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities endorsed Common Core.

"We believe California's implementation of the Common Core standards and aligned assessments has the potential to dramatically improve college readiness and help close the preparation gap that exists for California students," the agencies wrote.

In an effort to ease students and parents worries, ACOE is hosting a Common Core Summit on Feb. 28 where a panel of university faculty will address what professors and admissions officers are looking for and the course options students have to build these skills besides AP Calculus.

Adoption and implementation

At Common Core parent meetings and school board meetings, parents have voiced their opinions about the implementation process -- or some asked "Why adopt the standards at all?"

"Districts were not able to say 'no.' States were but California opted in with a year of testing," said Steward.

Some states that did not adopt the standards include Texas, Virginia, Indiana, Alaska and Nebraska.

According to Indiana Department of Education executive director of communications David Galvin, Indiana adopted CCSS in 2010 and joined Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) -- the assessment element of Common Core.

Then, in 2013, the Indiana legislature wrote a law that directed its education department to develop and adopt new Indiana state standards and withdraw from PARCC.

"The more we got into it, the more we saw it was becoming a national movement," Indiana State Sen. Dennis Kruse said in a phone interview. "We wanted to be independent. In Indiana spirit as we say, 'We do things the Indiana way for the people of Indiana.'"

Kruse also pointed out that although Indiana has its own state standards, they are very much aligned to Common Core -- just without the 'Common Core' reference. This is also happening in Mississippi.

At January's Common Core fair, ACOE representative Jamie Marantz said that although California adopted the standards in 2010, districts didn't really receive direction until a couple years later.

"It was basically like 'This is your deadline, you as a district figure out how to do it,'" explained Steward.

PUSD board trustee Mark Miller said at a school board candidates forum last October that the implementation process has been rocky, but now has seen efforts from the district that aid in smoothing the transition.

"The amount of time and energy that has been spent implementing has been staggering, and should be appreciated," he added. "But I think this has been more difficult than anyone imagined."

PUSD used a three-year implementation plan, which district officials say has been looked at by other districts and even other states.

Pleasanton parents have also asked, "Why couldn't we roll out the implementation?"

"We can't wait," Douglas contended. "If we have a slower roll out, we'd have students taking assessments that don't understand how to take it. Scores would absolutely drop."

Steward added that districts didn't have the choice of when to begin the new assessments.

Hague recalled when the state standards changed in 1997, "We saw something very similar, and state test scores did not come back looking fabulous."

"It's going to look very different for awhile but it's going to improve every year," she said.

Support for teachers, parents, students

PUSD is providing as much support as it can to the community, district officials said.

Teachers are receiving support through staff development days and curriculum committee meetings where they are teaching each other and learning from one another.

While some parents are unsure of ways to support their children, district officials say the best thing families can do for them is to stay positive.

"If you're talking about Common Core in a negative way, our students are going to absorb that and also get frustrated with it," Steward said.

Hague advises parents to sit with their children and be patient as they go through this process.

"Have students talk through what they understand," she said. "If you've reached a point where you both don't understand it, write a letter to that teacher and let them know what you and your child aren't understanding."

In addition, because Common Core has become national, Steward said parents can search for some problems online and see resources from other states.

Gale Naylor, a math tutor whose child is a high school senior, said she attended January's Common Core forum to learn about how she can support her students.

"It's a change. It's going to take awhile and it's not going to be comfortable," Naylor said. "But it's a step in the right direction for our children."