The Common Core Tests Return

Educators hopeful but anxious before second round of Common Core tests

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When teachers across the city plop English exam packets onto students’ desks next week, kicking off the second season of Common Core testing, much will have changed since round one.

Some of the developments, including new Common Core teaching materials and a new schools chancellor committed to curbing test mania, have offered educators a modicum of calm before the exam books open. But other changes, particularly new teacher evaluations that factor in student test scores, make exam anxiety hard to shake.

“I hear a message of hope coming from the new administration,” said Megan Moskop, an English teacher at a Washington Heights middle school. “But the system still is what it is.”

Schools will administer the state’s annual grades three-to-eight English exams next Tuesday through Thursday. The math exams run from April 30 to May 2, after spring vacation.

For the second year, the tests are tied to the new Common Core learning standards, which in reading call for more nonfiction texts and closer textual analysis. Students’ scores on last year’s Common Core tests were much lower, on average, than their scores on the previous year’s exams, which were not tied to the new standards.

Having weathered those first tests, educators this year had a better sense of what to expect on the exams, several said.

Unlike last year, most schools this year also had new teaching materials that the city endorsed as Common Core-aligned. Many teachers received the materials late, and some found them uninspiring or unreasonably challenging. But others said they felt newly confident that the skills they taught in class would match those measured by the tests.

Lori Wheal, a sixth-grade English teacher at I.S. 131 in the Bronx, said the Scholastic-made materials her school chose and her own lessons center on Common Core skills, such as scrutinizing the way authors of persuasive texts construct arguments bit-by-bit with claims and evidence. To do this, they “close read” texts, scrutinizing and annotating passages over multiple re-readings. (The state’s English-exam guides say that on the test “100% of points require close reading.”)

“We’ve been doing pretty much the same skills and strategies they’re going to be tested on,” Wheal said.

But that state test-curriculum overlap concerns some teachers, who see their lessons bending toward the skills tested by the exams, even if they do not consider those skills as worthy as others.

Alex Messer, a fourth-grade at P.S. 321 in Park Slope who has spoken out about the impact of high-stakes exams, said anticipation of the tests have spurred line-by-line analyzing in some reading classes at the expense of vigorous discussions about big ideas.

“It’s looking at the trees instead of the forest,” Messer said.

The new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, had also “buoyed spirits a bit,” as one teacher put it. A longtime educator, Fariña has urged teachers not to obsess over the state exams, telling them the best test preparation is a lively classroom “where students are immersed in conversation, debating ideas, and developing perspectives.”

The new administration has also floated some test-related reforms, which it has yet to enact. For example, the city says it will deploy teams of experts to save struggling schools, where students perform poorly on tests, rather than close them. And Fariña has raised the possibility of removing test scores as a factor in student-promotion decisions.

But she has also pointed out that the federal government mandates annual student exams and state law now bases up to 40 percent of teachers’ ratings on students’ scores, leaving the city little leverage to reduce the amount of standardized testing. (In fact, the new teacher evaluations have added new tests for some students this year.)

“The law is the law is the law,” said Sameer Talati, principal of P.S. 7 in East Harlem. “You do feel the pressure.”

Tracy Lynne, an English teacher at an elementary school in Brownsville, Brooklyn with a history of low test scores, said some of her colleagues have responded to that pressure by pulling activities from test-prep booklets year round, not just in the weeks leading up to the exams.

Even at her children’s school in Brooklyn Heights, where students usually perform well on the exams, test prep has been ramped up this year, Lynne said. Where teachers used to hold voluntary workshops on test-taking strategies, now her son’s third-grade class is working through a new test-prep unit, she said.

Some teachers said the state’s decision to release only a quarter of last year’s test items, rather than publish the entire exams, has made it more difficult to prepare students for this year’s tests.

Others recalled the difficulty many students had completing the writing portions of last year’s English exams and wondered if the state had made adjustments. State officials said students will be given the same amount of time the reading tests this year (70 minutes per test day in grades three and four, and 90 minutes in grades five through eight). But they expect the older students to need less time because their tests will have fewer questions this year.

Some students with special needs will be allotted extra time. But several special-education teachers said that accommodation ignores that fact that the tests far exceed their students’ abilities.

“I don’t think any teacher ever wants to give a student a test we know is inappropriate,” said Moskop, the Washington Heights English teacher who has students with special needs. “In this case, we’re not given a choice.”

Anna Staab, a sixth-grade English teacher at the Highbridge Green School in the Bronx, said her approach to test season is to remind her students and herself to keep the exams in perspective.

“What we have our eyes on, the prize,” she said, “is so much bigger than the test.”

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a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.