Between two rounds of test scores, a rocky year for the Common Core

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
State Education Commissioner John King (center) listens to a critic during one of a series of heated Common Core forums last fall. Backlash against the new standards went mainstream this year.

It’s been a rough year for the Common Core in New York.

After the painful results of the first Common Core tests were released last summer, anxiety over the new standards went mainstream, and before long parents and lawmakers were demanding that the rollout of the standards be slowed or even halted.

Since then, city and state officials have lowered the stakes tied to the Common Core tests, but the standards remain a potent political issue – especially in this year’s gubernatorial race.

The latest scores will give some sense of how students and teachers are adjusting to the standards now that they’ve seen the tests and most have finally received Common Core textbooks (though the jury is out on the new materials).

Still, the scores won’t settle some big uncertainties about the future of the Common Core in New York – from whether an educator-as-chancellor working jointly with the teachers union will be enough to raise the level of classroom instruction, to questions about the state’s long-term plans for the standards.

Below, a recap of the Common Core’s tumultuous year.

Backlash and damage control

As officials had warned, student proficiency rates tanked last year when the state for the first time tied its annual exams to the more demanding Common Core standards, which it adopted in 2010. Only a third of students statewide passed the new tests, with students of color slipping even further behind their white and Asian peers.

State officials and the standards’ backers spun the results as a corrective to past score inflation that illuminated the steep path actually ahead of students aiming for college. But critics saw the scores as evidence of epically poor planning — too little training for teachers, no new textbooks for schools, and failed communication with families.

The scores galvanized many parents, who turned a series of state-hosted Common Core forums last fall into raucous protests. By that winter, the state teachers union had demanded the ouster of State Education Commissioner John King and withdrawn its support for the standards “as implemented.”

The ever-greater opposition forced lawmakers to get involved. (Unlike in some other states, most elected officials here stood by the standards even as they blasted the way education officials had rolled them out.) Following deals between the state legislature and the governor, Common Core test results will not — for now — appear on student transcripts or determine whether they move to the next grade, nor will they count against teachers in the new evaluation system.

It’s not hard to draw a line from the outcry over the Common Core test scores to those changes, said Joseph Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College.

“By popularizing the issue,” he said, “it gave legislators an interest to jump into this.”

More tests, new chancellor

As Common Core skepticism surged, another round of Common Core tests arrived.

Statewide, tens of thousands of families boycotted this spring’s state exams. In the city, more than 900 parents opted their children out, according to advocates – a minuscule portion of all test takers, but more than three times as many as the previous year.

At the same time, concerned educators felt impelled to speak out against the tests. Principals and teachers at more than 40 city schools helped organize sidewalk demonstrations one April morning to protest exams that they considered confusing and poor measures of students’ learning.

Critics saw the tests as just the latest instance of the New York’s bungled Common Core rollout. While most other states are waiting to assess students on the standards until new online tests are released next year, New York decided to move ahead with its own exams. And in the city, botched textbook deliveries last fall meant that some schools started another year without Common Core teaching materials.

Midway through the academic year, Carmen Fariña took over the school system.

The longtime educator quickly voiced her support for the standards, but said families and teachers needed more guidance on how to help students reach them. She also insisted that the Common Core is not amenable to test prep, and to make her point – as well as to conform with new state requirements – she said test scores would no longer be the main factor in student promotions.

The new standards “are what will help our students compete in the future,” Fariña said. “But rote memorization and excessive test prep won’t get us there.”

Uncertainties ahead

The standards may have survived a stormy year in New York, but where they head from here is far from certain.

Fariña and the teachers union president, Michael Mulgrew, have promised that added professional-development time built into the new teachers contract will help educators take command of the new standards. But it remains to be seen whether more training for teachers will translate into more learning for students.

Meanwhile, Fariña has vowed not to use test scores to rate schools in a simplistic way. But she has said less about how she will hold educators accountable for making sure students reach the new standards, or what she will do when schools struggle to meet that challenge.

At the state level, lawmakers have temporarily barred districts from factoring in test scores when deciding whether to fire low-rated teachers. It is possible that when that reprieve ends, a fight could re-erupt over tying teacher ratings to test scores, said Michael McShane, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Finally, even as its exams have come under fire, New York has decided not to switch over to the new online Common Core tests when other states first administer them next year. If New York sticks with its own exams, critics say, then it will have squandered one of the main benefits of nationwide standards – the ability to see how each state’s students stack up against the others’.

“It gets rid of the ‘common’ part of the Common Core,” McShane said.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.