Last year, the Common Core was debated by everyone from conservative talk show hosts to parents flooding state capitals, and teachers rebelled against a new evaluation system they believe is unfair.
Now it's year two for the phase-in of controversial education reforms. And while students returning to Maryland classrooms this week may be blissfully unaware of the debate, they will see more changes. First, they can forget about the MSA (Maryland School Assessment) and learn the name for new state tests: PARCC, or Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers.
These tests, aligned with the Common Core, will be much harder as the state begins to expect more analysis and deeper thinking from students. Pass rates of 80 percent and higher seen at most Maryland schools are expected to drop substantially in the spring.
Students may also expect to see more computers and laptops in their classrooms, as schools gear up to integrate technology in teaching and to give the new PARCC tests. Many school districts plan to give the PARCC tests online this coming school year, even though they will not be required to do so until the 2016-2017 school year.
Students in Baltimore City, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties will begin school Monday. Anne Arundel County staggers its start day over Monday and Tuesday. Baltimore County opens Wednesday.
Beyond the education reforms, schools in the crucial Central Maryland districts of Anne Arundel and Baltimore City will start the year with new leaders. Not quite 60 days on the job as city schools chief executive officer, Gregory Thornton said he doesn't expect a perfect opening day in the city. As of last week, the city schools still needed to hire more than 100 teachers to fill vacancies in critical areas such as special education, math and science. Those classrooms will start the school year with long-term substitutes.
"It is not going to be a disaster, but it is not going to be optimal," he said.
Anne Arundel County's new leader, George Arlotto, said principals have reported to him that their schools are better staffed than usual after the county hired 613 new teachers.
"We have worked incredibly hard this summer. One of the resounding themes as I have traveled around ... is that this has been the best staffing year out of [human resources] that they've seen in years. We're ready for the school year," he said.
Maryland school Superintendent Lillian Lowery expects some of the first-year flaws in implementing the Common Core curriculum to be gone after school systems spent the summer rewriting and refining their new lessons. Some teachers will have had more training on how to teach the new curriculum and should have more materials available to them to teach.
"I would say the majority of our teachers have embraced the standards and they just need the resources with which to impart the content to the students. We don't want to hear the stories we heard last year," she said, referring to concerns that schools were unprepared to teach the more rigorous curriculum.
Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said that "most of the teachers like the depth of the Common Core. They like the standards and they think they are good for students."
Despite the work that has been done on writing curriculum, she believes there are still issues. "Is it finished? I seriously doubt it. Are the textbooks aligned? I don't think so," she said.
But whether or not the curriculum has been refined enough, students in grades three through eight will take the PARCC in 2015 in both reading and math during two sittings, the first in March and the second near the end of the school year in June. High school students will also take PARCC assessments in Algebra I, Algebra II and 10th-grade English as part of their graduation requirements.
The Maryland State School Board could also add the PARCC 11th-grade English test.
Some school districts said they have used federal Race to the Top money to purchase new technology to give the tests online. Anne Arundel County will soon have about 8,000 Chromebooks at a cost of $2.6 million in addition to 33,000 desktops and laptops, according to Greg Barlow, the county's technology officer. County schools have recently updated the bandwidth so they have the capacity to give the tests online.
Baltimore County has announced it plans to provide a device for every child over the next several years. It is introducing laptops to several grades at 10 elementary schools this fall and has supplied all of its teachers with the devices this summer.
City officials said that after participating in the state's PARCC field tests last year, when about 5,300 students took the exam online, the district is prepared. In the 2012-2013 school year, only six schools had administered a state assessment online, compared to 136 last year.
Every student should be able to take the PARCC assessment online this year, city officials said, and more than 95 percent of city schools have a laptop cart with 30 computers each. Students will have to share, but all should be able to complete the tests within the near-monthlong period allotted for the assessments.
"There's always going to be more need for technology, but in terms of us getting our schools ready, we feel that we're able to administer PARCC this coming year," said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, chief accountability officer.
In the past four years, the city has invested $16 million on technology. Ken Thompson, information technology officer, said that the technology office will be requesting additional support staff to deploy to schools to help troubleshoot during testing, at a cost of $513,000 over three years.
He's confident the district's aging school buildings can support the additional technological needs this year. "Are we in the optimal position? No. Will it take longer? Yes, it will. Can we support it? Yes, we can," he said.
Howard County school officials say they are prepared to have students take the tests online. The bandwidth of every school in the system was increased tenfold this July and over the past two years, the system has purchased about 5,500 new laptop computers for elementary and middle schools.
Lowery and other school district administrators say they must integrate the technology into classroom teaching as a tool. Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance believes the introduction of technology is a means to changing teaching in the classroom.
"This year brings excitement as the second year of Blueprint 2.0 comes to light with technology and expanded world language opportunities for all students," he said of the school system's strategic plan.
But teachers also worry that students whose homes are not well stocked with laptops, desktops and other devices may not be as nimble when taking an important test online.
"A student who doesn't have regular access except maybe at school could be at a disadvantage," Weller said. "If we are testing whether students are growing in their thinking, we don't want it to be a test of button pushing and tech skills."
Schools are also adjusting to a new teacher evaluation system that puts emphasis on student achievement as a factor in rating teachers. Across the nation, teacher tenure and evaluations are becoming increasingly contentious issues, with education reformers pitted against teachers unions.
Maryland intends to use test scores as 20 percent of an evaluation, although the General Assembly voted last year not to allow test scores to be a factor until there are at least two years of PARCC testing data.
Weller and Lowery said the issue is still being negotiated. The teachers union and the state will work together on developing other measures to evaluate teachers.
"I think people are getting more comfortable with using quantitative data," Lowery said. "We aren't all singing "Kumbaya." We are certainly in a better place than we were. I am pleased about that."
Baltimore Sun reporters Erica L. Green and Joseph Burris contributed to this article.