Common Core session held at Souhegan High School in Amherst

AMHERST – About 60 people filled a double classroom at Souhegan High School last Wednesday night for a two-hour forum on Common Core.

The Amherst-Mont Vernon School District is phasing in the new educational standards, and Nicole Heimarck, the district’s director of Curriculum and Professional Development, started off the forum by saying “there is a lot of information out there, some accurate and some not accurate.”

Designed to standardize expectations for math and reading achievement across the country, the initiative has run into some pushback from those who say it involves too much government intrusion in education.

Two men closely involved in Common Core, David Pook and Scott Marion, led the program, explaining what the standards are, how they work and how they affect classroom practices.

Pook, an English teacher at Derryfield School, engaged the audience in activities to demonstrate what is meant by “close reading,” one of the chief tenets of Common Core,

“There is a ton of research about what close reading means,” he said, and “whether it’s Page 1 of the Union Leader or a technical manual at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard” children have to learn how to read and comprehend it.

Marion, of the Center for Assessment in Dover, a nonprofit organization involved in the testing side of Common Core, said evaluating students’ skills is important for improving teaching and learning.

“In the 21st century, people will need to solve novel problems, which requires deep understanding,” he said, and if testing doesn’t assess that deep understanding, if they rely on, say multiple choice tests, “it’s unlikely that teachers will feel the need to think deeply.”

Charges that Common Core is a new government intrusion into education are unfounded, he said. Since 1966 when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed, the federal government has been involved in education, and since then, there has been No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. In 2014, when the federal grant supporting Common Core ends, the assessment part of Common Core will be supported by the states, he said.

Smarter Balance, as the new assessments are called, is a better test than the current New England Common Assessment Program and it costs less per student, Marion said.

“We’re trading up in quality and lowering the cost,” he said.

The charge that Common Core assessments will collect intrusive and inappropriate data on children is also false, Marion said, and no data will be held for more than one year and that data is protected by privacy laws.

“All testing companies are bound by very strict rules and adhere to state laws … they have a lot to lose,” he said.

During a question and answer session moderated by Town Administrator Jim O’Mara, one woman referred to a comment from Marion in the online magazine, Politico, in which he referred to Common Core opponents as “(Glenn) Beck-inspired believers” who don’t want their kids to learn more meaningful content and skills than they are now.”

The woman said the comment angered her.

“I am a parent with a lot of concerns … but when I read stuff like this, I’m infuriated,” she said.

Marion told her it was not meant as an insult.

Other people asked about Common Core’s financial backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and someone said he heard that Common Core standards can be detrimental to students pursuing STEM (science technology engineering math) careers.

“This is the first time I’ve heard that,” Marion said. “That’s something that would bother me.”

The standards set up minimum expectations for all students and stop at beginning algebra, he said, because that’s a starting point, but it’s “not meant to reign you in.”

One man said he wants his child to work toward the highest standards possible and he’s concerned Common Core will interfere.

“No one is saying your child has to stop at algebra,” Marion said. “If your kid wants a STEM career, he will know he needs four years of science. Nobody is saying hold your kids back.”

Another questioner suggested the testing would be used to track children on an early career path.

“I can show you all the (Center for Assessment) contracts since 1998. There is nothing like that,” Marion replied.

According to the state Department of Education’s website, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is not a national or state curriculum, but “a state-led effort to establish clear educational expectations for English language arts/literacy and mathematics that states can share and voluntarily adopt.”

The New Hampshire Board of Education adopted the standards in 2010.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or at kcleveland@cabinet.com.