This year's state English language arts exams required more "close-reading" than ever before, in keeping with the priorities of the Common Core learning standards.
Back in April, when the exams were administered to students in third through eighth grades, educators said the length of the reading passages and what students were asked to do with them made the tests too onerous for the time allowed. This week, the state released scores showing that only 31 percent of students met the state's proficiency standards, including just 26.4 percent in New York City.
We asked three English teachers to apply the same reading strategies that they teach their students to questions that appeared on the state's reading exams. (Breaking from recent past practice, the state released about a quarter of the test questions that students saw. We highlighted math questions on Wednesday.)
Zeroing in on the "Earth and Water and Sky" passage on the seventh-grade exam, the educators — Victoria Dedaj, Mark Anderson, and Jen Murtha — said some questions required more than literacy skills, used complex language, and sometimes had no clear answer.
Dedaj and Anderson — whom you might remember from our Common Core literacy event last fall — teach at M.S. 228 in the Bronx, where Murtha was a Teaching Matters' consultant before becoming the nonprofit's director of educational services. Here's the passage and what they said about it:
Two years ago, just one in three students at Achievement First Bushwick were rated "proficient" on the state's reading tests. It wasn't exactly the kind of result promised from a high-performing charter school in a "no excuses" network.
But the school has nearly doubled that rate in the two years since, according to state test scores released Tuesday. On the 2012 English language arts test, nearly 60 percent of students at the school were rated proficient, compared to 47 percent of students citywide.
Bushwick's gains on the reading tests were among the largest made in the charter sector, which improved as a whole by seven percentage points, from 44.5 percent to 51.5 percent. The improvement — from matching the citywide average to scoring well above it — has provided fodder for charter school advocates and the Bloomberg administration to push back against critics who oppose the expansion of charter schools across the state.
"Policy makers and legislators should take note" of the gains, said Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter Schools Association."It’s not only a tougher measure than the host district comparison, it suggests that districts across the state should consider charters as another tool to better educate children."
"We can't possibly handle the demand from parents for the charter schools," Mayor Bloomberg said during a press conference Tuesday. "They're just off the charts."
Several charter operators announced their schools' test scores in celebratory press releases Tuesday. Deborah Kenny touted the eighth-grade math and reading scores at her schools, the Harlem Village Academies. The Success Academy network announced a 7-point gain in reading proficiency across its four schools with testing grades, more than twice the citywide improvement rate. And Democracy Prep said the low-performing charter school it took over last year had posted the largest reading proficiency gains of any school in the state, with third-grade reading proficiency hurtling from 28 percent in 2011 to 63 percent this year.
The charter school sector wasn't nearly as enthusiastic to promote its gains two years ago, when reading scores slumped. Struggles to boost literacy were not unique to Achievement First Bushwick.
When Democracy Prep students stroll into school wearing t-shirts that read “I’m kind of a big deal” and “Don’t act like you’re not impressed,” they don’t get in trouble for not wearing their uniforms. Instead, they get applauded for winning the right to wear the celebratory shirts by hitting a major milestone on their journey towards reading 1.2 million words.
Requiring students to log the pages or books they read is common practice in city schools. But the expectation is a bit different at Democracy Prep.
Schools in the network regularly see students' math scores shoot up. But reading scores proved harder to budge. The network's founder and superintendent, Seth Andrew, chalked the phenomenon up to differences between the two subjects. In math, a student can be strong in geometry but weak in algebra, but literacy is built on more cumulative knowledge, he explained: In order to raise students' reading scores, they mostly needed to read more.
In 2010, when Democracy Prep Harlem opened, literacy specialist Ajaka Roth and principal Emmanuel George thought about ways to make this happen. It wasn't by requiring students to read more books, they decided.