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.”

Want the latest in New York City education news? Follow Chalkbeat on Facebook or @ChalkbeatNY on Twitter.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.