The first-graders in Ann Stauffer’s class at Millbrook Elementary School picked out book after book on Thursday – reading with big smiles and engagement.


In two years, the kids will be third-graders, and, like others in grades three through eight, they will participate in the kind of standardized exams that emerged 12 years ago. At that time, the then-Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test emerged as a part of a national move to what became informally known as high-stakes testing.


But the exams in 2014-15 will be dramatically different and more difficult, too, said Dr. Randy Stowe, the Aiken County School District’s director of administrant.


Last fall, the district introduced Common Core academic standards, which were state-driven and have since been adopted by nearly all 50 states. The battery of tests that will debut in two years will become more rigorous as a result.


They’re called the Common Core tests for now, Stowe said, and they will be administrated through first-ever online programs on computer. South Carolina and about 25 other states are participating the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium that will deliver the same tests and standards to each state – a first-time structure.


For many years, state tests have relied on multiple choice and will do so for one more year. Such a format “is at the lowest level in Bloom’s Taxonomy,” Stowe said, “where students recognize the correct answer. Creating the answer on a computer will move up the rigor. We are obtaining computer software so that our schools can ask questions of students in the new format.”


The questions soon will require answers in the form of sentences and short essays.


The school district got a head start on other districts and states by introducing Common Core in 2011-12 to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. All grades will introduce to the new standards in the current year, with expectations for students moving to the next lower grade level.


The upcoming structure is not only a challenge for students, but for teachers and administrators, as well, said Millbrook Principal Denise Huff. Her school was among 20 Aiken County schools this year that piloted the computer-based testing with Common Core standards. The school district has introduced teachers to the changes through professional development sessions, which will remain ongoing.


“Our older kids were experiencing frustration with the new test-taking,” Huff said. “They asked a lot of questions, and it was a good learning moment for the teachers and the students. It’s new and unfamiliar and we’ll get the students over the fear factor.”


The Common Core standards are not as broad as the existing standards, said Stauffer. The new academic requirements are more in-depth. The introduction of the those standards a year early did help her current first-graders.


“It doesn’t take as much back-teaching to get them where they want to be,” Stauffer said. “I’m teaching adverbs and a grammar component. It’s a lot more rigorous to take a story and break it down.”