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.”

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.