There’s a young man at our school – let’s call him Dedric (his name has been changed for issues of privacy) – who has always been a good student. He made good grades in elementary and was proficient last year on the reading/language arts portion of TCAP. But he’s been struggling a little this year, earning a D first semester.

Dedric, you see, is having difficulty transitioning to Common Core. Language arts is much more rigorous now, with a heavy emphasis on writing and defending claims. It’s no longer enough to get the correct answer, which in itself is now more of a challenge, but you also have to explain why your answer is correct and why other options are incorrect. Textual evidence is required for every assignment, and reading passages are utilized more and are more complex.

That’s a big leap from TCAP expectations, which involved more rote memorization and multiple-choice options. And that’s why Dedric went from scoring Proficient to struggling to earn a D.

For every Dedric, there are many struggling even more. Most of our incoming sixth-graders scored basic or below basic and were even less prepared for the increased rigor of Common Core than Dedric.

This is a national trend. Kentucky was the first state to implement a Common Core-aligned test in 2012, and scores plummeted. New York experienced a similar drop in scores this past year with its first Common Core tests.

Critics like Diane Ravitch have used these results to argue against Common Core. And several states have responded by either rejecting or slowing the pace of their original adoption of Common Core.

Tennessee has a different plan. Anticipating a drop in scores under Common Core, our state is rolling out another initiative, Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI²), at the same time to ensure that all kids have the supports they need to successfully transition to Common Core.

Let’s look again at Dedric. At Grizzlies Prep, we already have a solid RTI² system in place. We take struggling scholars like Dedric and provide them with extra supports (interventions), in addition to the regular high-quality instruction in English language arts.

What do these interventions look like?

At Grizzlies Prep, where the vast majority of our scholars enter multiple years behind grade-level, we use our extended day to the fullest. For reading (and we have a similar program for math), we offer the following tiered interventions:

  • • An extra block daily (alternating between nonfiction and fiction studies) that focuses on reading and vocabulary, with our highest-level readers instead participating in an enriched seminar block daily.
  • • A daily guided reading block that focuses on reading fluency and comprehension.
  • • For our lowest-level readers (our non-readers), it means all of this, plus an intensive daily small group block of Wilson Reading with our literacy specialist that focuses on phonemic awareness, decoding skills, prosody, vocabulary, and comprehension.
  • • And once our non-readers become confident readers, they transition into a seminar class that focuses on reading comprehension, with special attention to close readings of the text.

As a result of these tiered interventions, all of our scholars are on pace to read on grade-level by the time they enter high school. In order to be college-ready, our scholars must first be high school-ready, so we started with that goal and then developed a plan to ensure that all of our young men will get there.

Our average scholar enters on a third-grade level and achieves reading growth in excess of two grade levels per year (meaning they enter seventh grade on a fifth-grade level, they enter eighth grade on a seventh-grade level, and then enter ninth grade on a ninth-grade level). Our non-readers come to us on a kindergarten level and average three years of growth (so they enter seventh grade on a third-grade level, they enter eighth grade on a sixth-grade level, and they enter ninth grade on a ninth-grade level).

If we look at Dedric’s progress, he has grown from a late second-grade reading level when he entered Grizzlies Prep in August to an early fourth-grade level as of December. Early in the new semester, Dedric had a solid B average. Without the support offered by our RTI system, Dedric would be failing.

The drop in scores associated with Common Core could lead to a dramatic increase in special education referrals. Or it could lead to a hard choice of, either retaining an incredible number of students, or passing along students who have failed to master the standards.

Those are all legitimate concerns.

But those aren’t the only options. Just like we’ve done with Dedric, schools can and must provide the additional supports to ensure that all kids are able to meet the new, more rigorous expectations. In our state, these supports are being mandated.

Fortunately, the Tennessee Department of Education has done much of the work already with its RTI² initiative. I encourage you to check out the RTI² Manual, the RTI² Implementation Guide, and professional development options from the state. And feel free to contact me to learn more about Grizzlies Prep.

This blog was first published at Bluff City Education on January 26, 2014.