The focus, according to presenter Jamie Marantz, is on depth of knowledge, rather than rote memorization or reciting facts.
Marantz, executive director of CORE Learning with the Alameda County Office of Education, told roughly 85 parents at Hearst Elementary that the new standards were designed to get children ready for college.
"They started with the end in mind," Marantz told the crowd. Designers, she said, asked what makes a student succeed in college -- then asked, "What skills do you need to do that?"
Parents also got some first-hand experience, spending about 20 minutes doing sample questions based on the Common Core curriculum.
One model used by Marantz asked questions to demonstrate different depth of knowledge. At the most basic level, students were asked to use their notes to describe three characteristics of plant cells.
A deeper depth-of-knowledge question would ask students to describe differences between plant and animal cells, and a third question, as an even deeper depth-of-knowledge example, would ask students to describe a model to represent key relationships between plant and animal cells based on cellular functions.
After answering questions, parents had some questions of their own about how Common Core will work.
One parent wanted to know how computers being used to score the tests will be able to interpret open-ended questions. For now, humans may be called in to do some scoring, according to Marantz and her co-speaker, Dr. Ingrid Roberson, also with the county office of education.
Another parent wanted to know how Common Core would be adapted for special-needs students. Roberson and Marantz said there are built-in accommodations and additional aids that can be programmed based on students' individual education plans, including text-to-speech for those with dyslexia and Braille tests.
Getting teachers up to speed to incorporate Common Core into their classes was another concern. Marantz described the process of implementing the new standards as "paving a road into a foggy place," and said the district, like others across the state, is investing time and money into training teachers.
While one parent worried about the new texts and other teaching materials needed for Common Core, Marantz said new textbooks are not necessary yet. As an example, she said a teacher might read a story about bats to an elementary school class, then move into bat biology, giving students informational texts as they need them.
The scores and what they will mean was a concern for some parents. This year will be a test of the test, according to Marantz and Roberson, to see what needs to be tweaked. They said refinements will continue, explaining that the test given in 2015 will likely be very different from the one in 2018.
Colleges, they said, are already taking Common Core into consideration, changing tests for college readiness like the ACT. The speakers said AP tests will change too, incorporating deeper depth-of-knowledge questions.
But in response to one parent, there's no need to hire a tutor. Parents can ask, "what did the teacher ask you to do" or "what part of the article supports your answer," and the district is considering workshops with tools for parents who want to help their children. Some pointers are already on the California Department of Education website at www.cde.ca.gov.
Roberson said some 40,000 questions will be tried out this spring as the test gets refined.