Assessing the field

Students wade into testing debate on a field trip to City Hall

Fourth graders from the Brooklyn Charter School stop by the City Council and catch some of an education committee hearing
Fourth graders from the Brooklyn Charter School stop by the City Council and catch some of an education committee hearing

For one class of fourth graders, a tour of City Hall turned into a chance to add their voices to the fierce public debate over standardized testing today.

Teachers from the Brooklyn Charter School scheduled the city government field trip after finding that few of their students knew much about the city elections that took place earlier this fall. But they didn’t realize they were going to be walking into a City Council hearing featuring Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who was getting peppered with questions from lawmakers about how testing policies were affecting schools.

Any possibility that the students would see some of the heated sparring between education officials and council members, a common sight at previous hearings, seemed dashed by the timing of the visit. The election season is over, and both Walcott and Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson are just a few weeks from leaving office, so there were no theatrics and little new information offered up in the Department of Education’s testimony.

The hearing framed many of the issues that have been raised more contentiously at forums, state legislative hearings and protests around the state this fall. Some of the issues, like an increased pressure to perform well and the shifting standards that define proficiency, were ones that the visiting students and teachers said they’ve seen and experienced first-hand.

“I’ve been in testing grades for six years and it’s definitely more pressure,” said Gina Zaccaria, one of the teachers from the Bedford-Stuyvesant school. “They feel it more.”

Last year’s tests were closely aligned to the Common Core for the first time since New York State adopted the more challenging learning standards in 2010. The change resulted in lower proficiency scores across the state, with just one in three students passing both the English and math exams. The drops sparked a push back about how prepared students and teachers were to meet the new bar, and the teachers unions have led a charge in calling for the state to slow down its rollout by removing the high stakes for teachers that are attached to the tests.

Zaccaria and her class were spotted and invited into the hearing room for a formal introduction as Walcott was about an hour into his testimony. They stayed for a couple of minutes before filtering back out into the newly-renovated City Council chambers to share their own experiences with the tests.

All of the students said they felt nervous before taking the third grade exams last year and they all agreed they were hard. Some students “didn’t finish all of it” while another student called the experience “nerve-wracking,” especially because it was, as third-graders, their  first time taking state tests.

One girl said that being held back a year was on her mind. Charter schools are exempt, but grade promotion from one year to the next in New York City is based on state test scores. That practice could be going away soon with Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio intent on deemphasizing the role of tests as a way to measure student, teacher and school performance.

“I was really nervous if I would pass or not,” she said. (The students’ names were kept anonymous at the request of their teachers, who said they did not have permission from parents to speak to the press.)

But the students were optimistic about this year’s tests. Why?

“I think that because we’re getting better at learning and writing,” one girl said.

And a boy thought that the more challenging standards were a good thing.

“I actually think that new things are happening, we might [be] changing,” he said.

 

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 [email protected]

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.”