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 By that winter, the state teachers union had demanded the ouster of State Education Commissioner John King and withdrawn its support for the standards “as implemented.”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.

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

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.”