Kelly Skon, center, answers a question for Dylan Brashier, left, as members of his group, Charlie Besso and Cameron Russo, work on solving a problem during a pre-algebra class at Thurston Middle School on Oct. 25. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Coastline Pilot / October 31, 2013)

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Students in Kelly Skon's pre-algebra class had to think on their feet Friday morning at Thurston Middle School in Laguna Beach.

The sixth- and seventh-graders walked around to nine different stations, where a problem on inequalities greeted them.

Aside from solving the problem, students in groups of three or four needed to explain, in writing and in their own words, what the question asked them to answer and also cite an example from the question that helped them understand what they needed to do, all in 2 1/2-minute intervals.

After all groups answered their questions, classmates reviewed the answers for accuracy. Students wrote their initials next to any answer they disagreed with and Skon went around to verify whether the initials were warranted.

The shift in teaching and learning strategies is taking place at Thurston and campuses throughout California as school districts align curriculum with the new Common Core state testing standards, which emphasize critical thinking and interpretation, going beyond the multiple-choice exam model.

Students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 will take revamped trial tests this year, either in mathematics or English-language arts, in preparation for the 2014-15 school year, when the tests will count toward a school's academic performance ranking, according to the California Department of Education website.

Skon's students could not use calculators as they moved from stationto station.

The activity is a departure from what previous students encountered.

"Last year they would have done a worksheet, and it would be just problem-solving," said Skon, in her third year at Thurston. "These are real-life examples: buying T-shirts or jeans and paying a taxi cab fare. They have to set up the problem and solve it."

A sample question read: "You want to save at least $100. How much do you need to save if you start with $37? Write and solve the inequality."

The exercise fosters communication among students and also prepares them for the workforce, Skon said.

"Doing a problem this way automatically facilitates talking There's no time to waste," Skon said. "Very few jobs require one to sit by themselves and work by themselves. They have to know how to get it done in the time they are given."

Jeremy Hayes, 11, liked the modified learning tactic.

"It's better than sitting in our seats; it's more active," Hayes said. "You can go over other people's work, which is better."

Skon and colleagues started preparing for Common Core last year, when she and fellow teachers met for an hour after school each week.

Skon also attended a three-day training seminar offered by the district, she said.