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When results from Kentucky’s first round of Common Core aligned testing came out in 2011, Southside Elementary School in Lee County, like most schools, found itself looking at grim numbers. Pass rates went from 73 percent to 46 percent in reading and 62.5 percent to 27 percent in math. Based on those scores, and some other factors, the school was found to be in the 14th percentile statewide.

But three years later, the school had moved up to the 99th percentile, with 54 percent of students passing the reading test and 57 percent the math. So how’d they pull it off? The Hechinger Report spoke to principal Steve Carroll to find out how, despite lingering concerns about the standards themselves, he and his teachers are making them work.

Question: Tell me about your transition to Common Core.

Answer: When we transitioned to Common Core we did an unpacking the standards process. More importantly after we got through that process, we started a backwards design where we developed questions and learning objectives based upon the standards themselves and then translated that into assessment. Probably the biggest gains came after we let students start developing learning objectives based on the standards. We would actually give the students the standards and ask them, ‘What would you have to be able to do show mastery of this?’ The students themselves developed learning objectives. The key point is it became student friendly [in] language.

Related: Are new Common Core tests really better than the old multiple-choice tests?

Q: Now that you’ve worked with them for a few years, what do you and your teachers think of the standards?

A: On some levels, especially the elementary level, they are not age appropriate. There is a concern at the lowest levels of what we’re asking students to do in their cognitive development. But that is the system that we are working with. We are addressing those needs.

I’m not for sure the standards are as important as instruction in terms of student learning. Good instruction is about students and student learning. Whether it’s the old Kentucky standards or new Common Core standards, the idea is about the process of student learning and students being able to be lifelong learners.

Related: With Common Core tests, a lot at stake for first-year principal

Q: This was the first year that many schools around the country gave the Common Core-aligned tests. A lot of the principals are probably bracing for some unpleasant news. Is there any advice you would give them?

A: Our first year, our scores showed a decline. Just getting in the data and seeing exactly what specific areas that students are struggling with and that’s usually where you don’t see a correlation with your own [state] standards. The process of unpacking the standards is key for teachers to be able to understand what they’re doing.

Q: Did having those test scores make it easier to keep going with Common Core?

A: Yes, you took the data of your students’ performance and began to key in on areas that you were not doing well in. When you switch from one set of standards to another set of standards, you wind up with some gaps. Kentucky standards – you work with text features in fourth grade. The new Common Core, you work with text features in first grade. The Common Core standards do not spiral as well as the old standards. They’re more of a stair step. If you miss something in year one, you don’t have as great of an opportunity to get it in year two. I don’t know the solution to that. There are only so many hours in the day. You can’t teach your new standards and your old standards simultaneously.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Read more about Common Core.

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