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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Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.