Failing Grades

Teachers review English exams in online forum, and it's not pretty

PHOTO: Testing Talk
A new website asks teachers to share their thoughts about Common Core tests.

The reviews are in, and students found this year’s state English exams “stressful,” “exhausting,” “confusing,” and “soul crushing,” according to mostly anonymous comments by educators on a new testing feedback site.

As New York students in grades three through eight sat for three days of Common Core English exams this week, some of their teachers have posted missives about their students’ experiences and the tests themselves on a new site created for that purpose, called Testing Talk.

The educators from across New York who took to the online forum represent a tiny fraction of the state’s educators. But their overwhelmingly critical comments were also remarkably consistent: The tests were too long, too difficult for many students, and a poor reflection of the thoughtful, critical work called for by the Common Core standards.

Students had between 50 and 70 minutes to complete each test, depending on their grade and the day of the exam. Many students were left racing against the clock to finish, teachers said.

“When I announced there was only ten minutes remaining, more than half my class had not even started the extended response!” one teacher commented, adding that only two or three students finished all the questions in time.

Older students faced 42 multiple-choice questions on day one, but “60 minutes in and I had children on question 21,” a fifth-grade teacher said. “As I announced the time, I watched children scramble, mark answers, guess, but most of all I watched these same children who had given me their best, become defeated!”

Several educators said the time crunch forced students to trade inquiry for velocity.

“We have spent the year teaching students to be careful, thoughtful, deep thinkers,” a fourth-grade teacher lamented. “Today the objective was speed.”

One reason for the students’ slow pace, some educators said, were reading passages that were long and hard to tackle.

The eighth-grade test featured a Shakespearean poem, one teacher said, that was “extremely difficult.” Third graders faced “obscure vocabulary and unapproachable plot line” in a reading passage drawn from a 1950s book, another teacher wrote. And sixth graders stared down a piece of “so-called literature about sewing machines,” a different teacher posted.

Another cause for the slow-down, teachers reported, was all the close reading — the line-by-line analysis of the structure and meaning of a text through multiple re-readings, which is a staple of Common Core-based instruction. Several educators insisted such close reading is impossible within the constraints of a timed test.

“Many of the multiple choice questions were quite involved, requiring students to flip back and forth a number of times and re-read multiple times,” an eighth-grade teacher wrote.

Another eighth-grade teacher said the quality and complexity of some of the reading passages did not warrant the scrutiny some questions demanded.

“It felt like the test makers were trying to force a V8 engine (the multiple choice question) into a Yugo (the nonfiction reading passage),” the teacher wrote.

But a commenter chimed in on a different post, noting that the test is meant to measure students’ ability to provide “text-based answers,” a key tenet of the standards.

“I think they asked questions on purpose that students had to go back for,” the commenter said. “[Students] aren’t supposed to be able to just ‘remember’ — that is the point.”

Many educators said the tests were especially arduous for English-language learners and students with special needs.

One special-education teacher said the extra-time accommodation amounted to “an endurance test” for students with disabilities. Others noted that special-education teachers tailor their lessons to each students’ particular needs all year long, and yet those same students are forced to take the same state tests as every other student in their grade, regardless of their different needs.

“It’s wrong that the individualized education philosophy stops at Common Core testing time!” a special-education instructor said. “Parents should be outraged!!! I know I am.”

Testing Talk grew out of an online forum created last year by staff at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project to gather educators’ responses to the first year of Common Core tests. The new site allows educators from across the country to give feedback about their state tests, as well as field tests for in-development Common Core exams.

The site had garnered about 150,000 hits and 300 posts by Wednesday evening, according to Lucy Calkins, TCRWP’s founding director. Its purpose is to hold the people making the tests accountable to those who must live with them, she added.

“There have been billions of dollars and millions of hours of children’s and teachers’ lives that have been invested in these new tests,” Calkins said. “My goal is to help educators to be part of the process of making better tests.”

Pearson, the publishing company with a five-year, $32 million contract with New York to create the state tests, referred questions about the site to state education officials.

Ken Wagner, the state education department associate commissioner who oversees testing, said that teachers play a role in creating the test. He added that the department also monitors teachers’ feedback once the tests reach the field, noting that complaints about a time-crunch last year led the state to reduce the number of questions on the upper-grade English tests this year while giving students the same amount of time.

Wagner also cautioned against reading too much into the comments on the online forum.

“Anecdotes posted on a website,” Wagner said, “that’s a particular community. That’s not necessarily indicative of a statewide trend.”

But criticism about this year’s tests have not been confined to the Internet. Educators at Brooklyn’s P.S. 321 sent notices to parents Thursday afternoon urging them to join a protest the following morning against what they called the poor quality of this year’s English tests.

“In my 10 years of teaching,” fourth-grade teacher Alex Messer wrote to parents, “I have never felt more devalued and outraged about a statewide test.”

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.