Elgin Middle School sixth grader Allison Graves sits at a computer in math class, using a program called Think Through Math to practice fractions.
“Your friend gave you a bag of candy," she reads. "There are 36 red candies and 27 green candies. What is the ratio of green candies to red candies?”
The online math program takes Graves through each lesson step by step. She collects points for correct answers and competes against classmates and other Texas students.
But the Think Through Math version Graves uses is different than the same program used by students in Oklahoma or New Jersey. That’s because this version is aligned with Texas curriculum standards – not national Common Core standards.
This week, students across Texas continue to take standardized tests (better known as STAAR), based on state standards called Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).
Texas’ standards are unique: While 44 states have adopted new curriculum standards called the Common Core, Texas continues to use its own.
But how different are the two sets of standards? And how much do they affect classroom instruction?
“The Texas students will definitely see a different product because of the differences in their standards and how we’ve built to reflect those differences, says Think Through Math's Sara Byrne. Most students use the company's Common Core program – but because Texas has so many students, it’s worthwhile for the company to create a program specifically for Texas.
“The standards themselves are different. At the end of the day we’re all teaching math," Byrne says.
Common Core and the TEKS both have their roots in something called the American Diploma Project. It was a network started in the early 2000's that developed education standards.
“They are really similar in a lot of ways," says Randy Bomer, Curriculum and Instruction Chair at UT’s College of Education. "They emphasize what they call college and career readiness. That tends to be an emphasis on non-fiction texts and writing about texts as opposed to writing about other kinds of topics, like life.”
When it comes to math, UT professor Susan Empson says she also sees a lot of overlap.
“The kind of expectations they have about fluency, depicting characterizing, understanding in terms of kids' ability to use different models and tools, to solve problems," she explains.
Bomer says there are some differences between the Texas’ standards and Common Core in reading. Texas standards tend to show more a of a connection between skills and how they relate, while the Common Core tends to have discrete skills separate from each other.
“Texas had more educator participation in the early drafting of the standards so relationships among skills are a little clearer," Bomer says.
Texas opted not to participate in Common Core – after the federal government said states had to – to be eligible for a special pool of federal money aimed at encouraging innovation in education. Plus, Texas officials argued the state spent a lot of money and time developing its own standards.
It was also seen as a political response to the federal government since some see the Common Core as an effort to undermine local control of education. Last legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting the use of Common Core standards in Texas classrooms.
“To say that Texas can’t participate in Common Core standards when there is so much overlap between the Common Core and the TEKS, it doesn’t really make any sense,” Bomer says.
He says state standards have become a way for politicians to make their mark while in office.
“If you come in and change standards and change the test, what will happen is at first everything will go down, everybody will be worse at that test," he says. "And then over the next few years they’ll get better. And it looks like you made the education system better. So it’s a continual cycle as people come in and try to clean house and put in their own vision of what education should be like.”
But when it comes down to making real change in the classroom, UT’s Susan Empson says people should think about ways to support teachers, “and what it means for kids to engage and what it means for kids to understand what they’re learning and believe themselves capable of learning it. The kinds of things that affect that aren’t delivered necessarily from the top down, which would be standards.”
Empson says there is one big difference between the TEKS and Common Core: in the newest Texas math standards, students are required to learn personal finance.