Lindsey Yundt's algebra 1 class at Boise's South Junior High doesn't bear much resemblance to what it might have looked like a few years ago.
The days when students copied a couple of math problems off the board and then did 20 more like them in a "drill-and-kill exercise" are gone. Now there are real-world math problems that demand more than a simple right or wrong answer.
Students must ask, "Do I have evidence to support what I think about this," Yundt said. "Does it make sense?"
They may spend several days working on a single problem, plumbing all its facets.
Yundt is helping write curriculum to align Boise School District's instruction with Idaho Core Standards, the state's version of common education goals developed by 45 states.
The standards, adopted by the Idaho State Board of Eduction and the Idaho Legislature in 2010 and 2011, roll out in Idaho's 115 school districts and in charter schools when students return this fall.
Kids will field-test a statewide assessment in grades three through eight and 11th grade next school year. By 2015, those tests will become an official state measure of how well students are performing academically.
'IT'S ABOUT THINKING'
In one of Yundt's exercises, students must figure out how much it would cost to remodel a bathroom, with work done by companies that charge different rates for work and consultation. Students also are asked to determine how much it would cost if the two contractors worked together and to defend their answers.
"It's not about memorizing a procedure," she said. "It's about thinking - and kids can think. You just have to give them opportunities, and we haven't given them opportunities."
Those same sorts of critical thinking skills Yundt seeks in her class extend to the language arts standards.
High school students, for example, might read the Declaration of Independence and be asked to defend its assertion that the king of England was a tyrant by studying what others have had to say, said Laura Gilchrist, English language curriculum coordinator for the Meridian School District.
When ninth-graders read "To Kill A Mockingbird," they might do more than study what the characters do. That might include a look at race relations or study racially charged trials similar to the one that plays a central role in Harper Lee's American classic.
"If you can't think critically and use evidence to arrive at conclusions, then you aren't set up to be an efficient learner for the 21st century," Gilchrist said.
COMMON CORE'S BUMPY ROAD
Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force for Improving Education got an earful on the evils of Idaho affiliating with other states to create a common set of education standards for public school kids when it held a hearing in Boise this spring.
Despite support from educators, as well as legislative and business leaders, who see the standards as a pathway for students to get to college and good jobs, opponents blasted the standards as an unprecedented federal intrusion into local and state education affairs.
They criticized standards as preaching collectivism that would make Idaho kids little more than drones of the state. Their message is echoed across the country, as opposition to the Common Core State Standards is being heard in places such as Indiana, Utah and Michigan.
It is hardly the first time states have undertaken sweeping reforms to improve education.
In 1990, with lawmakers fearful that kids weren't learning to read, Idaho began a reading-improvement program that included 10-minute exercises gauging how many words kids could read in a minute, a measure of comprehension.
President George W. Bush championed an accountability program called No Child Left Behind, which attempted to assess how many students were academically proficient and outlined sanctions for schools that failed to measure up.
Common Core grew out of a discussion between State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and education leaders in other states in 2007 on seeking a common set of standards to measure academic achievement.
A HIGHER BAR
Idaho Core Standards, with the emphasis on critical thinking, is a departure from what the state has used for much of the past decade to meet benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Those standards largely required kids to memorize things and pass multiple-choice exams.
The goal, said Don Coberly, Boise School District superintendent, was to "get as many kids as you could over a low bar."
Not all are convinced the new standards are an improvement. Stacey Knudsen, a mother of five in the Meridian School District, is an ardent critic of Common Core.
Her daughter came home from elementary school once with information to read on the 19th century Gold Rush. At the end of the text, her daughter was to answer questions. "The questions asked on the back weren't answerable by what was in the text," she said. "The kids don't have knowledge to infer."
Knudsen finally told the teacher her daughter would read the text but not answer the questions.
"There isn't value in night after night of frustration," Knudsen said.
Concerns like Knudsen's are more a result of curriculum than of the standards that set broad learning goals, Luna said.
Those standards are more demanding than what Idaho has been living with, Yundt said.
"Dumbed-down is what has been happening over the last eight years because of the need to pass the Idaho Standards Achievement Test," she said.
Assessments based on the Common Core State Standards were piloted in 120 schools across the state this year. Students who took the exams at South Junior High say they are harder and more demanding than the ISATS.
Exams require more reading and more thought, they say. In language exams, students write out their answers. That's not done on the ISAT - a multiple-choice test - and was a criticism at the time ISATs were developed.
Luke Duncan, a seventh-grader at South, said he had to write a short story at the end of his test.
"It makes me think more than the ISAT," Duncan said. "On the ISAT, if you think there is one answer, that would probably be it."
Parents, students and teachers can see sample test questions at the Idaho Department of Education website to get an idea of what next year's statewide exams will look like.
COMPLAINTS AND CONCERNS
Backers of Common Core insist the standards are rigorous and the emphasis on critical thinking essential to meet demands from business leaders who want sharper thinkers in the workplace.
The standards, said Coberly, could help districts move the education needle toward Idaho's goal of having 60 percent of its workforce ages 25 to 34 completing some form of postsecondary education by 2020, up from 35 percent now.
Critics are undeterred.
Knudsen complains about Idaho losing its identity by joining a coalition of states to create common standards that she believes are influenced by the federal government.
The Gem State Tea Party is making room at its August Liberty Summit in Burley for a discussion of what it calls federal Common Cores Standards.
"I don't think high-stakes testing and tracking ... has improved education," Knudsen said. "We know if our kids are getting a good education."
Supporters say the common goals give states an opportunity to measure themselves against others - something not possible with the ISAT because it is based on standards unique to Idaho.
"So if it is valuable for Coeur d'Alene to be able to compare how its school is doing (relative to) Boise or Pocatello, why isn't it valuable for them to know how their high school is doing compared to Spokane High School, which is 50 miles away?" said Luna.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts