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New standards make tests tougher

Saturday, April 6, 2013
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Rosendale Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Diane Beckert and her math students work on solving multi-step problems in December.
Rosendale Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Diane Beckert and her math students work on solving multi-step problems in December.

— Students may do poorly on state tests they will take beginning next week, say education officials, with scores potentially dropping 30 percent or more from last year’s exams.

The reason: a more challenging curriculum called the Common Core affecting students in grades 3-8 this year and high school next year. The new curriculum, designed to make sure students are more prepared for college, involves more reading, writing and critical thinking.

The state Board of Regents in July 2010 voted to adopt the Common Core learning standards, which were created by the leaders of 45 states and designed to reflect what students should know by the time they leave high school to be ready for college and careers. Joining the consortium was a key factor in the success of New York’s application for nearly $700 million in federal education funding through the Race to the Top program.

Last May, the U.S. Department of Education granted New York a waiver from the No Child Left Behind requirements, which said that all students had to be proficient in English and math by 2014. Instead, the new standard says that high school graduates have to be college- and career-ready and it implements a more realistic timetable for achieving that goal.

New York had to update its exams for math and English language arts for students in third through eighth grades to reflect the new curriculum.

The first tests under this new curriculum — English language arts on April 16-18 and math on April 24-26 — have both parents and educators worried.

“I feel like they’re kind of pushing the kids a little bit harder than what they’re ready for. I do like the idea of it, but I see my daughter struggling,” said Schenectady parent Stephanie McCormack. “I feel they could have eased into it. I find the teachers are having trouble keeping up with the curriculum.”

She helps her 11-year-old daughter, fifth grader Raegan, with her homework. However, Raegan said it is difficult for her parents to teach her because they don’t know the material.

That seems to be a common problem.

“The certain methods that they teach are a little different from what I learned,” said Schenectady parent James Klotz.

For example, when students are doing math word problems they are supposed to draw boxes on their paper and place numbers in each of the boxes that represent different parts of the equation.

His 9-year-old daughter Addy said they are learning improper fractions and basic geometry in fourth grade.

Parents are scrambling to learn as much as they can, picking up packets of Common Core sample test questions at a recent academic and arts event at Paige Elementary School in Schenectady.

Educators are also apprehensive about the new tests.

“Quite frankly, we’re not ready and no one else is,” said Bronson Knaggs, director of curriculum for the Schalmont Central School District, at a recent Board of Education meeting.

Knaggs said students are expected to learn more difficult material at a younger age. What had been taught in fifth grade is now to be taught in fourth grade. As the curriculum is being implemented, children now in fifth grade must learn two years of material to catch up.

Knaggs believes test scores will improve once districts have adjusted to the new standards.

Many Schenectady City School District students have difficulty meeting the old standards, which were part of the No Child Left Behind law.

Only 37 percent of Schenectady’s third graders passed the English test and 42 percent passed the math test in 2011, the most recent data the New York State Education Department had available. For eighth graders, the passing rate was 22 percent for English and 31 percent for math.

With a more difficult curriculum, Schenectady school officials predict that 80 percent of students could fail the new tests.

“Don’t you think that might mean the standards are ridiculous? It doesn’t make sense,” said Board of Education member Cheryl Nechamen.

Schenectady Superintendent Laurence Spring said the harder tests would force teachers to start teaching differently.

The increased difficulty level is what state education officials had in mind three years ago when they began the push for higher standards. They are prepared for a drop in scores, according to Ken Wagner, assistant commissioner for policy and strategic planning at the state Education Department.

“That doesn’t mean that students have suddenly learned less or teachers are teaching less or not teaching as well. This is simply a resetting of the bar of what’s needed and expected,” Wagner said.

During this transitional year, Wagner said the state will not count this decrease in test scores against districts and will not label any new school districts as needing improvement.

The state wants to see student achievement increase from year to year — even if the passing rate is low, they will be fine, according to Wagner.

Other states have experienced a similar drop in scores when they began using the Common Core standards. Kentucky, for example, saw its scores drop by 30 percent or more.

Wagner also pointed out that on a similarly difficult exam, the National Assessment for Educational Progress, about 30 percent to 40 percent of New York’s students have not met the standards during the past few years.

Some districts and teachers have said the state is moving too fast implementing the changes, but Wagner said education officials had to act. Although the state’s high school graduation rate is 75 percent, Wagner said the number of students who were really ready for college or a job was about 35 percent.

“Each year, we have over 100,000 students across the state who are leaving high school after four years and they’re not prepared for college or careers,” Wagner said.

State education officials have said students are college and career ready if they have achieved a score of at least 75 percent on the English Regents exam and 80 percent on a math Regents test. Students who score below that level often need to take remedial classes in college.

About 47 percent of two-year college students in New York and 12 percent of four-year college students need to take a remedial class, according to state data.

State officials say there was plenty of notice about the curriculum changes. In January 2011, the Board of Regents announced that the Common Core curriculum and tests for math and English would take effect this school year. Tougher Regents exams based on the Common Core start next year.

Essentially, the Common Core curriculum was developed by taking what students should know when they graduate and working backward, according to Wagner. The curriculum contains a breakdown of what students should know after each grade level. He estimated that the Common Core curriculum teaches students material two grade levels earlier than they had been exposed to the information previously.

The curriculum is covering fewer topics but more in depth, according to Wagner. The new English standards require students to read more challenging nonfiction material. The math curriculum focuses on teaching students how to solve real world problems and demonstrate why their solution is correct.

With the Common Core, students are being asked to use their reasoning skills to solve problems rather than relying on memorization, according to Rick Evans, assistant superintendent for instruction at the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District.

“Instead of teaching one way to solve a problem, there’s multiple paths to solving problems,” he said.

Questions on the old math tests were simpler and required only one or two steps. The new questions will require multiple steps, according to Danielle Bouton-Wales, math coordinator for the Schenectady City School District.

“Students will need to piece apart what the question is asking. The difficulty lies in being able to read and understand what the question is asking,” she said.

Bouton-Wales said parents should help their children by asking them how they arrived at any answer.

“How did you get that? Can you draw me a picture? Try to get them to verbalize more their thinking.”

The curriculum involves more reading and writing — and not just in English, but in social studies, science and math as well.

“That was one of the premises of the Common Core, that students were simply not doing enough reading and writing in schools,” Evans said.

Kerri Messler, English language arts coordinator for Schenectady, told parents to check out not just fiction but also informational books from the library, because kids need to read both. Starting in third grade, students must know how to cite material they have read in their answers to the reading comprehension questions.

Districts have been helping parents by holding math and English language arts nights.

Stevens of Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake said school officials have provided information about the Common Core at back-to-school nights and parent conferences, sent a letter home to parents and posted information online.

While Stevens said the goal of the new standards is commendable, teachers and administrators are trying to keep up with these changes themselves.

“There’s been a learning curve,” he said.

The state has also devoted a website, EngageNY.org, to the Common Core curriculum and the new standards.

A fact sheet on the website lists ways that parents can help their children, including asking them to cite evidence backing up their opinions in everyday conversations, making up rhymes and games with them, and encouraging them to do the math that comes up in everyday situations.

Cesaera Pirrone, a social studies teacher at Schenectady’s International Magnet School, said faculty members are trying to calm students’ apprehensions.

“It’s more about evaluating us than evaluating kids,” she said.

Under the state’s new teacher evaluation system, 20 percent of a teacher’s score is based on students’ academic growth based on their state test performance. Another 20 percent is based on locally developed tests and the remaining 60 percent on traditional evaluation measures such as observation.

The New York State Union Teachers union last month launched a media campaign calling on the state to wait before testing students on these new standards, saying that teachers hadn’t received curriculum information.

School districts wanted to use their own resources initially, according to Wagner. Then, there was a large demand for SED-designed Common Core lesson plan, and the state hasn’t been able to make enough to distribute to everyone who requested them. Wagner said it is more important to develop the right resources than putting together something quickly.

He added that it is better that the students struggle with these tests in the elementary and middle school grades rather than struggle after completing high school because they are unprepared for jobs or college.

Wagner said he has heard a few reports of parents not wanting their children to take the tests. He said the test should be considered like annual check-up by a doctor — a snapshot of how they are doing at that time.

“All we ask for students is to perform the best that they can. This work is challenging for all of us,” he said.

Schenectady parent Alyssa Manchester said she is glad the standards are being raised, even though it is an adjustment, because of the science and math skills students will need in the future.

“They’re going to have to use it in everyday life,” she said.

 
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