Failing Grades

Teachers review English exams in online forum, and it's not pretty

PHOTO: Testing Talk
A new website asks teachers to share their thoughts about Common Core tests.

The reviews are in, and students found this year’s state English exams “stressful,” “exhausting,” “confusing,” and “soul crushing,” according to mostly anonymous comments by educators on a new testing feedback site.

As New York students in grades three through eight sat for three days of Common Core English exams this week, some of their teachers have posted missives about their students’ experiences and the tests themselves on a new site created for that purpose, called Testing Talk.

The educators from across New York who took to the online forum represent a tiny fraction of the state’s educators. But their overwhelmingly critical comments were also remarkably consistent: The tests were too long, too difficult for many students, and a poor reflection of the thoughtful, critical work called for by the Common Core standards.

Students had between 50 and 70 minutes to complete each test, depending on their grade and the day of the exam. Many students were left racing against the clock to finish, teachers said.

“When I announced there was only ten minutes remaining, more than half my class had not even started the extended response!” one teacher commented, adding that only two or three students finished all the questions in time.

Older students faced 42 multiple-choice questions on day one, but “60 minutes in and I had children on question 21,” a fifth-grade teacher said. “As I announced the time, I watched children scramble, mark answers, guess, but most of all I watched these same children who had given me their best, become defeated!”

Several educators said the time crunch forced students to trade inquiry for velocity.

“We have spent the year teaching students to be careful, thoughtful, deep thinkers,” a fourth-grade teacher lamented. “Today the objective was speed.”

One reason for the students’ slow pace, some educators said, were reading passages that were long and hard to tackle.

The eighth-grade test featured a Shakespearean poem, one teacher said, that was “extremely difficult.” Third graders faced “obscure vocabulary and unapproachable plot line” in a reading passage drawn from a 1950s book, another teacher wrote. And sixth graders stared down a piece of “so-called literature about sewing machines,” a different teacher posted.

Another cause for the slow-down, teachers reported, was all the close reading — the line-by-line analysis of the structure and meaning of a text through multiple re-readings, which is a staple of Common Core-based instruction. Several educators insisted such close reading is impossible within the constraints of a timed test.

“Many of the multiple choice questions were quite involved, requiring students to flip back and forth a number of times and re-read multiple times,” an eighth-grade teacher wrote.

Another eighth-grade teacher said the quality and complexity of some of the reading passages did not warrant the scrutiny some questions demanded.

“It felt like the test makers were trying to force a V8 engine (the multiple choice question) into a Yugo (the nonfiction reading passage),” the teacher wrote.

But a commenter chimed in on a different post, noting that the test is meant to measure students’ ability to provide “text-based answers,” a key tenet of the standards.

“I think they asked questions on purpose that students had to go back for,” the commenter said. “[Students] aren’t supposed to be able to just ‘remember’ — that is the point.”

Many educators said the tests were especially arduous for English-language learners and students with special needs.

One special-education teacher said the extra-time accommodation amounted to “an endurance test” for students with disabilities. Others noted that special-education teachers tailor their lessons to each students’ particular needs all year long, and yet those same students are forced to take the same state tests as every other student in their grade, regardless of their different needs.

“It’s wrong that the individualized education philosophy stops at Common Core testing time!” a special-education instructor said. “Parents should be outraged!!! I know I am.”

Testing Talk grew out of an online forum created last year by staff at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project to gather educators’ responses to the first year of Common Core tests. The new site allows educators from across the country to give feedback about their state tests, as well as field tests for in-development Common Core exams.

The site had garnered about 150,000 hits and 300 posts by Wednesday evening, according to Lucy Calkins, TCRWP’s founding director. Its purpose is to hold the people making the tests accountable to those who must live with them, she added.

“There have been billions of dollars and millions of hours of children’s and teachers’ lives that have been invested in these new tests,” Calkins said. “My goal is to help educators to be part of the process of making better tests.”

Pearson, the publishing company with a five-year, $32 million contract with New York to create the state tests, referred questions about the site to state education officials.

Ken Wagner, the state education department associate commissioner who oversees testing, said that teachers play a role in creating the test. He added that the department also monitors teachers’ feedback once the tests reach the field, noting that complaints about a time-crunch last year led the state to reduce the number of questions on the upper-grade English tests this year while giving students the same amount of time.

Wagner also cautioned against reading too much into the comments on the online forum.

“Anecdotes posted on a website,” Wagner said, “that’s a particular community. That’s not necessarily indicative of a statewide trend.”

But criticism about this year’s tests have not been confined to the Internet. Educators at Brooklyn’s P.S. 321 sent notices to parents Thursday afternoon urging them to join a protest the following morning against what they called the poor quality of this year’s English tests.

“In my 10 years of teaching,” fourth-grade teacher Alex Messer wrote to parents, “I have never felt more devalued and outraged about a statewide test.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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