DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Many of the nation's public schools have been implementing new standards for literacy and math that are called the Common Core. Right now, big new standardized tests intended to make sure kids meet these standards are themselves being tested out in many states. In just a minute, one of our reporters takes a practice exam, but first the Common Core literacy standards. They're all about tackling tough reading, making sure kids are able to form ideas about what they read and to support those ideas in writing with evidence. Vermont Public Radio's Charlotte Albright went into the classroom.
CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT, BYLINE: Newton School looks like a big white New England farmhouse perched on a hill in Strafford, a tiny village in the eastern part of the state. Inside, about 120 students from Pre-K to eighth grade hurry to class.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC PENCIL SHARPENER)
ALBRIGHT: Kids in Ms. White's eighth grade history class sharpen their pencils. Today, they have a visitor. Joanna Hawkins is an education consultant and for the next 90 minutes she's in charge. They're beginning a new lesson on the Holocaust. To get things started, she invites a minute of conversation with the kids about the way Nazis forced Jews to publicly identify themselves.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Like, they have the little yellow stars pinned to their jackets.
ALBRIGHT: Next up, Hawkins passes out copies of an article. It's a lesson in bad science, about how German scientists distorted the work of Charles Darwin to justify Hitler's rise to power.
JOANNA HAWKINS: The idea of evolution, of the survival of the fittest seemed to confirm a view of German nationalism and German power that was ascending in that society. Let's underline that whole sentence.
ALBRIGHT: After this exercise in close reading, Hawkins takes the class on what seems like a sharp turn.
HAWKINS: We're going to switch a little bit. Just switch your head to another piece of information that you have, that you have studied recently.
ALBRIGHT: It's a fable the kids have read about a blind sage who touches and elephant's tail and assumes...
HAWKINS: (Reading) I can feel the elephant and it feels exactly like a rope. Therefore, all elephants are like enormous ropes.
ALBRIGHT: Hawkins sends the fable, along with the article on social Darwinism, home with the students. Their assignment: read both closely and find connections between them.
HAWKINS: All right, ladies and gentlemen.
ALBRIGHT: A week later, Joanna Hawkins returns to the classroom. She guides the students through a structured exercise, filling in blanks on a chart as the discussion unfolds about good versus bad science in Hitler's Germany. The kids compare Nazi scientists to the blind sage who was so wrong about that elephant.
IDA WICK: So, instead of science controlling what people think, what people think is controlling science.
ALBRIGHT: That's Ida Wick. Her classmates search the article for quotes to support her idea. More ideas surface with more quotes to back them up. The students organize all this into a grid and copy it down. So at home when they start writing essays about Darwin and Hitler, they'll have a blueprint. Here's eighth grader Emma Bower.
EMMA BOWER: We are given, like, a good scaffold to put the evidence that we need. But the way we put together and meld all those words together is up to us.
ALBRIGHT: And for this middle school class, that's a lot of words. These kids get a written assignment just about every week, based on readings you might easily find on a college syllabus. For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright near Strafford, Vermont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.