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What High School Parents Should Know About Common Core

The new standards will mean major changes for students and parents.

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The Common Core standards require high school students to collaborate to solve problems.
The Common Core standards require high school students to collaborate to solve problems.

When the Common Core State Standards take full effect in 2014, they will impact more than 42 million K-12 students. While some schools and districts are holding information sessions to educate parents on the new standards, most still know very little about what the Common Core entails.

Only 7 percent of adults say they know "a lot" about the standards, and 60 percent say they know "nothing" about the standards, according to a July report by Achieve, an education nonprofit. The following cheat sheet can help parents of high school students move closer to joining that 7 percent.

1. They are consistent. States led the charge to develop new standards in English and math, with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers coordinating the effort. Currently 45 states and 3 territories have adopted the standards, and many have already started implementing the Common Core.

Aligning the academic bar across state lines means students should receive the same level of instruction if their family moves from one state to another—an important factor for parents who have to relocate their families for work, says Randi Brill, founder of Quarasan, which develops content for education publishers.

"[With] the economy being what it is, the ability to say, 'No, I'm not going to relocate or take a different job until my kids graduate high school,' isn't really part of reality," Brill points out.

2. They dictate what, not how. The Common Core lays out what students should learn, but it does not tell teachers how to teach.

"The Common Core State Standards is a way to get everyone, at a very high level, on the same page," Brill says. "It is up to the teacher, and the school, and the district, to articulate how."

[Discover why two teachers may be better than one.]

States and districts will also determine how to implement the standards, and some will do so more efficiently than others. Parents should engage their student's teachers to find out how they plan to tackle the standards.

3. They go deeper. The Common Core gets away from instruction that is a mile wide and an inch deep, and instead drills into skills students need to succeed in college and the workforce.

Skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration will be built into new math and English curricula, says Shanika Hope, senior director of curriculum and instruction at Discovery Education, an educational content provider.

That means an algebra lesson that would typically be taught using formulas and equations will instead be taught with real-world scenarios where students need to work together to solve problems, adds Hope, a former teacher and principal in Washington, D.C. and Virginia.

[Find out why some math teachers use a "magic pen".]

"It's more of a story, and a story that's relevant to the kids," Hope says, using separate oil spills in the Gulf Coast and Alaska as an example. "They can compare and contrast that cleanup effort, and talk about ways to improve [it]. All of that's real-world, relevant stuff that's important to them, and they're being asked to leverage different tools."

High school English classes will put a greater emphasis on informational texts such as journals, newspaper articles, and nonfiction books—and even graphs and images. Now students will be tasked with reading an article or graph, digesting the information, and making an argument to show they understand the material.

"This is the type of texts our kids will engage with in the workplace," Hope says. "Very few of us get the opportunity, unless we work in a university, to actually sit there and read … Pride and Prejudice."

4. They are rigorous. Students will take algebra in middle school and precalculus in high school under the new standards. They will read more challenging texts and take more challenging exams. And in some cases, their grades and test scores will drop.

In Kentucky, one of the first states to roll out the Common Core standards, reading scores dropped 30 to 40 points.

"Our old assessments, they were kind of basic skills assessments," Terry Holliday, Kentucky's commissioner of education, said in a previous interview with U.S. News. "These new assessments are assessments against a college- and career-ready standard."

Have something of interest to share? Send your news to us at highschoolnotes@usnews.com.