There aren’t many ways to gauge how San Diego Unified students are faring under the new Common Core standards – but the data that does exist suggests it’s been a bumpy transition.

This year marks year one of a two-year period to institute the new standards. Math classes are being aligned this year; next year it’s English classes.

More students are failing high school math classes under the new system than were last year, according to grades from the fall semester provided by San Diego Unified, the first data available that provides a peek at student achievement since Common Core has been introduced in San Diego schools.

Overall, the percentage of students receiving an F in the high school math classes aligned with Common Core went up 7 percent – to 27 percent – from the same semester of the 2013-2014 school year. Those classes, formerly algebra and geometry, are now Integrated Math I and II. Another math class aligned with Common Core, called Integrated Math III, which replaces intermediate algebra, will be introduced next year. Across the district, more students received an F in these classes at all but three of the district’s comprehensive high schools for which data was provided.

At Lincoln High, a whopping 68 percent of students received a D or F this fall, up 10 percent from last year. At Clairemont High, the rate went from 44 percent to 50 percent and at Hoover, the number of students receiving a failing grade went from 48 percent to 56 percent.

There are a handful of schools where grades are actually rising: San Diego High schools of International Studies and Media, Visual and Performing Arts, the School of Creative and Performing Arts, Mira Mesa and Mission Bay high schools.

Comparing year over year grades doesn’t totally explain why some students are faring better than others. The district has several plans in place to improve student achievement in math, but progress will always depend on teachers’ and students’ willingness to learn in new ways.

There are plenty of reasons why more students are flunking the Common Core-aligned math classes. This year’s students have to play guinea pigs as teaching strategies are refined. But they might as well get used to it, because many of them will also be the first to sit for the redesigned SAT, which has also been reformulated with Common Core in mind.

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The goal of Common Core sounds simple: teach children critical thinking skills in order to better prepare them for college and careers. Common Core’s focus is on collaboration, in-depth study and on exploring multiple pathways to reach conclusions.

It’s been a rough and expensive transition. The overall cost in San Diego Unified schools is about $22 million, which is funded by the state. Teachers must learn how to instruct in new ways and get students used to new testing methods. The effort to train educators, in turn, triggers parent worries about how long their kids’ teachers are away from the classroom.

The first test of the system will happen this spring, when third- through eighth-graders plus 11th graders take the Smarter Balanced tests, which are aligned with Common Core. The state Board of Education voted earlier this month to suspend school accountability reporting for this first year of the new tests.

Photo by Dustin Michelson

San Diego Unified has deployed Common Core-trained resource teachers as mentors to coach classroom teachers on strategies for implementing the new curriculum. And resource teachers are spread thinly across the district. There are only two of them total for all high schools and one covering all middle schools. That’s because of limited funding, said Jim Solo, executive director of leadership and learning for San Diego Unified.

Using the special teachers is optional, which means teachers who might benefit from a mentor can opt out.

“We know that if people aren’t accepting and open to having people come and work with them, that you can try your hardest and bang your head against the wall and it’s not going to work” Solo said. “So we really want there to be a collaboration between the school site and the Common Core teachers, that there’s a desire on both ends to want to work together.”

The district also has math intervention programs in place at some schools. Some sites have an extended day, so they added a remediation class, paid for by a federally funded 21st Century Grant. Some schools use advisory periods for tutoring. Many also offer tutoring after school. Whether students take advantage of the optional resources is up to them.

The district has also increased the availability of summer school for students who need to make up credits – including students who’ve received a D or an F. Only a limited number of campuses offer summer school, though, and there’s no district-provided transportation. The district does provide an online option, called iHigh.

In many cases, parents are rushing to fill gaps, too.

At University City High School and Standley Middle School, over 300 students attend the tutoring-based Math Academy, which is privately funded by donations to the nonprofit EdUCate Foundation, which benefits schools in the University City Cluster.

At Muirlands Middle School, parents put together online learning tools and videos.

Outside math consultants from nonprofits and universities have been brought in to work with resource teachers and math department chairs at schools, said Solo.

“We’re working alongside the schools to make sure that whatever way it’s rolled out works for the particular school site, recognizing that each school site operates a little bit differently and needs supports in different areas” said Solo.

Last year, the district created an “intervention course” to start prepping students for the new math curriculum, said Linda Trousdale, program manager for San Diego Unified’s secondary schools.

The class is called Step Up to Mathematics in middle school and Power Up in high school. The classes will be built into the schedules for struggling students, Trousdale said.

“That’s a way to have a second period of math. It’s in its infancy stages this year,” she said.

“We need to make sure that during the school day, whenever you can, carve out intervention opportunities to support kids that are struggling,” said Solo.

Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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