Few of us had heard of Common Core before New York State adopted the controversial standards last year. The standards developed by business and education leaders are intended to help U.S. students compete in a global economy and create continuity among districts and grade levels. More than 40 states have adopted the standards, for which they're rewarded with Race to the Top federal funds.
Fewer than one-third of the state's students met the standards during the first round of Common Core-based tests last spring.
Amid all of the debate, there is some confusion about Common Core.
"I guess I don't know ultimately what is expected of (students)," said Stephanie Lewis, a parent of three children in Rush-Henrietta. "All I hear is the ultimate end goal of college prep that starts in preschool."
News 8 gathered a group of parents, along with Greece Assistant Superintendent Shaun Nelms and University of Rochester psychologist Richard Ryan to discuss Common Core and its impact on education.
We started our session by taking several Common Core-based state questions. These questions appeared on state exams. The state does not make entire tests available.
Our first question was from third grade English Language Arts. Students had to read an essay about a boy fishing with his grandfather.
Our panel didn't like the reading passage. Some called it "boring."
"For an 8-year-old to read something like this would have taken a lot of patience," said Jessica Brown, who has a daughter in Penfield schools.
"There was no real flow to the story," said Fred Tanksley, a parent of children in the Rochester City School District.
After reading the passage, students had to answer:
"Why is Thomas 'swelling like a blowfish' in paragraph 39? Use two details from the story to support your response."
"When I first read the question, I knew that I had to go back because I didn't know the answer right way," said Judy Hager, who has children in Rush-Henrietta schools.
The concept of going back to the text to look for the answer is known as "close reading" in Common Core.
"I would think at third grade that would be difficult," said Rochester City School District parent Maeve Cullinane.
"It's forcing students to think that way," said Greece Assistant Superintendent Shaun Nelms. "Is it the right way? You can make an argument either way."
Our next question involved third grade math:
What is another way of expressing 8 x 12?
A (8 x 10) + (8 x 2)
B (8 x 1) + (8 x 2)
C (8 x 10) + 2
D 8 + (10 x 2)
The correct answer is "A."
The group thought this was a fair question.
"I think it gets to the concept of how children visualize multiplication," said Hager.
We moved onto a fourth grade English Language Arts question, an essay about a sun god, followed by a series of multiple choice questions.
"This is a lot to read and then there's a lot of questions," said Cullinane.
There could be more than one correct answer on the multiple choice questions. Students have to pick the best answer.
Our panel disagreed on one of the questions, with a couple parents choosing an "incorrect" answer.
"Best to me doesn't necessarily mean the correct answer," said Brown.
Our next question came from fourth grade math:
"Ms. Turner drove 825 miles in March. She drove 3 times as many miles in March as she did in January. She drove 4 times as many miles in February as she did in January. What was the total number of miles Ms. Turner drove in February?"
Some members of the panel did not finish the question. The answer is 1,100.
"It's the wording of the problem itself that i had to sit here and struggle with," said Ryan, who noted the question requires reading comprehension, in addition to math skills. Ryan called the question, "trickily worded."
"I think in real life the math that we need to do isn't laid out like an equation," said Hager.
"What age for real life though - this is 9-year-olds right here - so what age?" Brown asked.
"What are we trying to get our kids to do in grade 4?" said Tanksley.
After we sampled the test questions, we gathered to talk about Common Core and the changes in education. Some on our panel are concerned teachers in their schools are required to strictly follow state-produced curriculum modules.
"I'm concerned that what my daughter is ending up with is not a lot of joy of learning," said Cullinane.
"You're trying to - one size fits all and children don't work that way," said Tanksley.
Schools, teachers are students are facing often intense pressure to meet the standards.
"(My daughter) would come off the bus in tears, because the math was moving too fast - she wasn't understanding it," said Brown.
To meet the standards, some Rochester schools have lengthened the school day.
"As a school district, you hijacked my child for the better part of the day and now I don't see them," said Tanksley.
Hager said her children are responding well to Common Core and she hopes it can be implemented successfully.
"It's no longer a rote recital of fact it's the ability to gain information in an increasingly complex world," said Hager.
Nelms strongly supports the idea that children across the state have to meet the same benchmarks at about the same time.
"I'm in full support of any standard that provides equity and access for all students regardless of race or disability or class," Nelms said. "To have students up late at night stressing about the test the next day is not the intention of the standards."
Ryan said Common Core is unproven and not developmentally appropriate.
"We as adults found there were some different answers we could give. The word problems seemed pretty difficult for the age level they're directed at," he said. "We've had 12 years of high stakes testing and we haven't had improvements in school because of it," Ryan said.
As for the state tests based on Common Core, the stakes are very high for students and teachers. Underperforming schools can be closed. Teachers whose students do poorly can be penalized or fired. Students spend a lot of class time preparing for the assessments.
"They were hard they were hard and that's the reason my daughter will be refusing state tests," said Brown.
Our panelists disagreed on the merits of Common Core, but did agree on one thing.
"I do think that we have overly emphasized the assessments and I think we should put more emphasis on the curriculum," said Nelms.
"I would like to see a lot less emphasis on the tests and a lot more emphasis on supporting children for learning," said Ryan.