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.”

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defensor escolar

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.