"maybe even panic"

Despite city's reassurance, Common Core exams cause concern

In the three years since New York officially adopted the Common Core learning standards, students have tackled tougher assignments, teachers have remade assignments, and schools have rethought when topics should be taught — all in an effort to prepare students to show they have mastered the new standards.

Now, the first test of whether the teachers have been successful is here.

Next week, students in grades three through eight will take their first set of Common Core-aligned state exams, in English. The following week, they’ll sit for three days of Common Core aligned math tests. The scores will help decide everything from whether the students will be promoted to where they will attend middle or high school.

“They’ve been talking about the Common Core for a couple of years now,” said David Baiz, who teaches math at Global Technology Preparatory Middle School. “This year is really the year when we’re staring down the barrel of the gun.”

Baiz’s concern is especially notable because he has gone above and beyond what the city has asked him to do to prepare for the new standards, which emphasize critical thinking, problem-solving, and real-world applications of knowledge. As a “master teacher” with the nonprofit Math for America, Baiz has been working with a small group of other educators to reshape their own instruction and help their colleagues adjust as well.

Where some educators have waited to be told how to transition to the new standards, Baiz has run headlong into the shift. And where some teachers have struggled without curriculum materials that are aligned to the new standards, Baiz has helped create them.

Still, he said, “There is a sense of apprehension, maybe even panic.”

In a sweeping public relations campaign, city and state officials have said that, yes, scores will almost certainly be much lower this year than in the recent past — but that students and teachers won’t suffer as a result. For example, the city will not send all students who fail to summer school, as it has in the past; instead, only the weakest performers will risk being held back.

“No one is going to be penalized because the state has decided to make harder tests,” Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said. “We recognize that this is a big change and is going to take time.”

But Bushra Makiya, who leads the working group with Baiz, said the cautions are little consolation for students who have been trained to think of the tests as having high stakes — and for whom the tests do carry real consequences. (Makiya, who will take part in GothamSchools’ event Tuesday about the Common Core in math, wrote about her anxieties about the new standards last week.)

“They say these things in news like only 10 percent of kids will go to summer school but more than 10 percent are going to fail the test,” she said. “Sometimes the kids see it and they’re stressed out about it and I don’t have a lot of assurance to give them. Do I say, ‘It’s OK if you fail the test’? That’s not a good message.”

Makiya, Baiz, and other educators say they have done their best to simulate questions that their students will face on this month’s state exams. But with only a handful of sample test questions released by the state and no previous Common Core-aligned tests to learn from, they say they have been grasping in the dark.

“We can only imagine what a full-on Common Core test is going to look like,” said Jose Vilson, an eighth-grade math teacher at I.S. 52 in Washington Heights. Vilson will also participate in GothamSchools’ math event this week.

If Elisabeth Jaffe’s experience is any guide, students who see unfamiliar types of questions on this month’s tests could end up falling short even when they know much of the material. While high school exams won’t start changing until next year, Jaffe, an 11th-grade math teacher at Baruch College Campus High School, asked her students to do some Common Core-aligned work this year. One such request knocked her students off balance, she said.

“Students didn’t understand what I was asking,” Jaffe said. “They just assumed they wouldn’t know the rest of it, so they just stopped working.”

Vilson said toughening assessments as part of a broader shift toward instruction that emphasizes the kinds of knowledge and skills that students will need after they graduate from high school can be a double-edged sword.

“We want to teach students around learning, not so much around how to take a test,” he said. “But I don’t think the current environment lends itself to that. [Students] have to do well on the test.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”