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.”

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.