a new standard

Here’s what annoyed high school students most about the switch to Common Core

The Common Core standards were supposed to get students to understand math more deeply. For some California high school students, it didn’t work out that way.

“I like working in the old books, because they actually explain it to me,” one said. “Do you want me to learn it? Or do you want me to stare at the problem?”

That’s one response from a survey of students who experienced the shift to the new standards in their math and English classes. The study is quite limited, emerging from interviews from just 54 high-achieving seniors. But it gets at something often overlooked in the political controversy that would eventually surround the standards, which most states adopted in 2010: what it felt like for students to see their classrooms change.

Some of the student’s responses, published last month in a peer-reviewed academic journal, may be surprising. Many blamed the Common Core for encouraging more group work — something they almost universally disliked. In some schools, though, the students appreciated what they perceived as a move away from teacher-led instruction.

In others, students complained that this open-ended approach bred confusion that never transitioned into mastery. And in several schools, it wasn’t clear whether anything changed at all.

Together, the students’ responses offer one glimpse into the experience of those whom Common Core was designed to help — and highlight specific ways in which the goals of the standards proved difficult to realize quickly.

At the same time, author Suneal Kolluri of the University of Southern California writes, “If schools can improve their execution of the higher-order thinking and collaboration skills they are just now beginning to incorporate into their classrooms, the Common Core reform may be a small step in the right direction for improving college readiness.”

Students say they need more guidance

Many of the students, who were interviewed in the middle of the 2015-16 school year, agreed that teachers were pushing them toward “higher-order thinking” thanks to the Common Core, which the state had introduced the year before.

“Students mentioned projects, discussions, group work, deep analysis of complex texts, and other classroom activities that involved complex thinking,” Kolluri reports.

"I feel like math should just be math."

But, students said, teachers didn’t always seem comfortable with what they were asking students to do.

“My Algebra 2 class, we had workbooks called ‘Common Core’ and I’m sorry, I hated it so bad,” said one of the students. “I understand they’re trying to do life scenarios. I feel like math should just be math … Our teacher as well was much more confused [than] us.”

Many also took issue with a new emphasis on working in groups of other students, which they thought came from the Common Core.

“You’re put into a group and you guys are supposed to try to solve a problem that you’ve never been taught before,” said another. “How are you supposed to do that? None of your group members know what they’re doing, and you don’t either.”

Some students said that it was unfair to tie their grades to the performance of others, and others complained that it led to more off-task behavior.

“Most students do not have as big of a passion for math as I do. They tend to not understand math as well as I do,” said another student. “They would understand it better if the teacher would be able to use examples and instruct the student.”

In this case and throughout the survey, it’s not clear whether students were accurately perceiving whether certain changes were a result of the Common Core switch and not, say, a separate push for group instruction.

But it’s clear that the high-achieving students in this study appreciated a more direct teaching approach, something research has linked to higher levels of learning.

What’s Common Core again?

Then there were schools where it wasn’t clear to students if new standards were introduced at all.

At four of the nine schools the students attended, no interviewees noticed any significant changes. When asked about the standards, some students responded with, “What’s that?” or “I’ve never heard of it.”

"The work is taught in a way where we are able to understand it and complete it and not just being able to guess our way through answers."

In other schools, implementation was inconsistent. “One student noticed that his teacher who was also the department head was the only teacher who implemented the standards because, as department head, ‘If you don’t, it’s becoming a bit hypocritical,” Kolluri wrote. At another school, “One student told of a teacher who refused to alter his instructional practices. ‘He says that it’s dumb, he says it’s stupid.’”

There were bright spots, particularly in two schools where students appreciated efforts to make them explain their thinking.

“I know with math, they require you to write out the explanation for your answers and then, I believe in English we had to argue a point,” said one student. “I think it’s more about making sure that people integrate their previous knowledge and also putting it on paper and explaining it in detail.”

“The work is taught in a way where we are able to understand it and complete it and not just being able to guess our way through answers,” said another student.

Diverse texts versus the same old

Another gap between theory and implementation: students’ access to literature by a diverse set of writers.

“The Common Core State Standards Initiative certainly suggests plenty of texts by Latina/o authors, but the students’ comments suggest that few have been incorporated into the curriculum during the transition to the Common Core,” Kolluri wrote.

"Students need to have a classroom where the curriculum is more relatable."

But students largely reported reading high school staples like “The Great Gatsby,” Homer’s “Odyssey,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “1984,” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”

“While the classic literature got mixed reviews, most appreciated the opportunity to access the same material that students from wealthier schools were accessing,” the study says.

Some students could also point to an “enterprising teacher who created meaningful opportunities to engage with issues important to the low-income communities of color in which their schools were situated,” like teaching an ethnic studies class. A recent study found that high school students exposed to an ethnic studies course in San Francisco saw improvements in their attendance and grades as a result.

“If these teachers are teaching in a community that is low income … students need to have a classroom where the curriculum is more relatable to what the students are experiencing,” said one student. “If the teacher excludes that … they feel that their problems are being left out and they’re being left out.”

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.